An explosion and fire at a family dairy farm in West Texas resulted in the deaths of more than 18,000 cows, making it the deadliest barn fire in United States history. On Monday (April 10), flames engulfed a building and pens at South Fork Dairy in Dimmitt.
‘This was the deadliest barn fire for cattle in Texas history and the investigation and cleanup may take some time,’ Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller said in a statement.
‘The cause of the fire is still under investigation, and we all want to know what the facts are. There are lessons to be learned and the impact of this fire can influence the area immediately and the industry itself,’ he declared, while also adding indicated that it will inform the public of the details of the accident later ‘so that tragedies like this can be avoided in the future.’
Miller has explained that a farm worker was trapped inside one of the buildings after the explosion and fire on Monday, after which she was rescued and taken to a hospital.
Around 7:21 p.m. Monday (12:21 a.m. GMT Tuesday), the Castro County Sheriff’s Office received a report of a farm fire. Photos from the scene show a large column of black smoke rising. Emergency workers and police arrived to find a person trapped, who was subsequently rescued and rushed to hospital in critical condition.
Sheriff Sal Rivera confirmed to local news outlet KFDA that most of the cattle were lost after the fire spread to an area where the animals were being kept before being transported to a milking station and holding pen.
While the exact number of cows that perished in the fire and smoke remains uncertain, the Sheriff’s Office told the BBC that ‘some 18,000 head of cattle’ had been lost, which is almost three times the daily average number of cows culled for meat consumption in the United States.
Sheriff Rivera said some cows managed to survive the fire, while others may have sustained injuries that required euthanasia. Most of the 18,000 cows that died in the fire were Holstein and Jersey cows, which made up nearly 90% of the farm’s total herd.
Based on USA Today’s estimate that each cow is worth about $2,000 (£1,598), the company’s losses in livestock alone could reach tens of millions of dollars, not including expenses associated with cleaning and repair of buildings and equipment.
What was the cause of the fire?
According to the Animal Welfare Institute (AWI), since 2013, approximately 6.5 million animals have perished in barn fires in the US, with cows accounting for 7,385 of those deaths. The highest number of victims has been among chickens, with six million dying in similar incidents.
The origin of the fire remains under investigation, but authorities speculate that the facility’s equipment may have ignited the methane gas. Castro County Sheriff Sal Rivera suggested that a machine called a ‘honey badger,’ used to remove manure and water, might have caused the fire to break out.
Rivera explained: ‘Possibly [it] overheated and probably methane and things like that ignited, spread out and exploded.’
How much ground can 18,000 cows cover?
Considering the average size of an adult cow, the 18,000 head of cattle that perished in the fire, spaced 3 to 4 feet apart, could cover an area of 26 football fields.
According to Gfeller, the explosion could have been caused by farm equipment malfunctioning. Texas firefighters are investigating the incident.
State and dairy officials are now figuring out how to dispose of the 18,000 animal carcasses.
Factory farm fires
According to the National Fire Protection Association, fires at livestock and poultry production and storage properties are not uncommon due to a lack of fire codes and safety requirements for buildings designed for animals.
These farms typically lack fire alarms and sprinklers and are full of flammable materials like hay. Barn fires are often caused by malfunctioning heating or electrical systems and are more prevalent in the cooler Midwestern and Northeastern states.
Fires in large industrial-scale facilities are especially alarming, as they can cause the death of numerous animals at once.
Factory chicken farms, for example, can house hundreds of thousands or even millions of animals each year, making it possible for a single fire at one of these facilities to account for the majority of barn fire deaths in a year.
Chickens are the most affected, with approximately 92% of the 6.5 million animals killed in barn fires, while pigs account for around 2% and cows less than 1%.
What can be done to prevent future tragedies?
The absence of federal regulations protecting animals from fire is a major concern for the Animal Welfare Institute (AWI). Although only a few states have established fire prevention codes for animal facilities, not including Texas, AWI is calling for federal legislation to prevent barn fires.
The organization suggests that careful management practices and regular maintenance, along with emergency action plans, fire extinguishers, annual fire safety training, and building emergency lanes, can prevent many barn fires.
While some barn fires can be caused by natural disasters, such as lightning strikes, it’s important to take proactive steps to ensure animal safety. The AWI hopes that the industry will focus on adopting common sense fire safety measures to prevent such tragedies from occurring in the future.
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