The Dec. 3 hog barn fire in Dodge County was only the second-largest barn fire in Minnesota this year, according to the latest tracking analysis by the Animal Welfare Institute. The largest was a barn fire in Pipestone County this summer that killed nearly 5,000 pigs.
The State Fire Marshal's Office is investigating the cause of the fire that killed around 2,000 young hogs on the morning of Thursday, Dec. 3. A Dodge County dispatcher said crews were called to 14491 Minnesota Highway 30 around 8 a.m. that day for a report of a barn fire.
Blooming Prairie Fire Department Chief Dean Naatz said owners of the farm, Anthony and Linnea Garness, were on the property when the fire broke out. When crews arrived there was a fire "already coming through the center," said Naatz, which resulted in responders not entering the structure.
"We can't send people into a collapse situation," Naatz said.
Fire crews from three different departments responded to the call, said the Blooming Prairie fire chief.
"In a loss like this, it's going to be tough to tell what actually started the fire," Naatz said. "Due to the age of the building and the extent of loss, it could be a number of things, honestly."
Naatz said in his career he's never seen a hog barn fire the size of the Dec. 3 one.
All of the pigs inside the barn at the time were killed and there were no other injuries. A GoFundMe page set up by Bryna Rabehl on behalf of the Garness family has raised $2,445 of a $5,000 goal. Anthony and Linnea Garness were unwilling to give comment on the fire and it's unclear how long the couple has operated the site.
According to nearby farms, several hog units in the area are contract partners to Holden Farms out of Northfield, Minn. A spokesperson for Holden Farms said they had "no information" on the site being a contract partner.
A hard road to recovery
Diane DeWitte, swine educator for the University of Minnesota Extension, doesn't know the details of the Dodge County farm and barn that burned. But she does know about the impact of barn fires.
According to DeWitte, barn fires are not all that common, but when they occur they leave a long-lasting impact on the farmers.
"There aren't any guarantees in any kind of farming operation," she said. "So we always have to think just how hard it is for people who work with animals to get over a loss like that."
When she was fresh out of college, DeWitte worked for eight years at a large commercial hog operation that one day experienced a major fire. She said it was hard to process that one morning they were working in the barn, and that same day it was gone and burned to the ground.
"It's really just a devastating, terrible thing to go through, and I can understand why some producers just don't want to talk about it," DeWitte said. "When you've worked with those animals day in and day out, it's just tragic losing them."
DeWitte said cleanup work at a farm after a fire is particularly difficult, with so many what-ifs and unknowns to mentally process. She remembers the smell of the site and feeling she had showing up to work the day after the fire and working through the aftermath of it.
"It's very sad work, knowing that you have to just clean up and deal with what's next," she said.
From the vantage point to having been through a barn fire, DeWitte said it's "not really something that a farmer would think to be newsworthy."
She said it becomes a family decision from there, to rebuild what they had or hang it up for good after a devastating fire. While recovering from the shock and sadness that can be a taxing call to make.
"This kind of thing will always be shocking and devastating, and it takes a while just to regroup and decide what to do," she said.
At the farm where she worked at, the owners decided to rebuild after the fire in a way different than the previous barn.
"That was kind of an interesting realization, that sometimes a tragedy gives an opportunity to make a decision to do things maybe differently than before," DeWitte said.
'A fluke and tragedy'
Allie Granger, policy associate for the Animal Welfare Institute, spends each weekday morning sifting through email alerts of potential farm animal fatalities across the country. She said the organization relies on simple Google alerts and "reporters on the ground" for its tracking data.
According to its data, nearly 5 million farm animals have been killed in barn fires since 2013, with the majority of those deaths being chickens, said Granger. Minnesota had the fourth-highest number of barn fires (26) in that time period, according to AWI.
When it comes to farm animals, Granger said AWI's biggest goal is to promote "commonsense solutions" that prevent barn fires. But listed on AWI's 2020 annual report as one of its main focuses is "abolishing factory farms, supporting high-welfare family farms, and eliminating inhumane methods used to slaughter animals raised for food." The organization promotes pasture-based farm systems that "allow animals to express natural behaviors."
In recent years there's been an increase in fires occurring on "industrial scale operations," said Granger.
"A lot of big commercial facilities will have anywhere from a couple hundred pigs to a few thousand," Granger said. "They are usually confined inside the barn and not many have outdoor access."
When any sort of emergency situation arises in a larger livestock unit, Granger said animals rarely have the chance to escape.
DeWitte said it's inaccurate to describe all barns with over a thousand animals inside at all times as "industrial scale." Pigs are mostly raised indoors, she said, especially in Minnesota.
"You can't raise pigs outside in this kind of climate very easily," DeWitte said. "It's a common way that pigs are raised in Minnesota."
DeWitte said there are square footage standards that pig farmers reference to know how many animals that can be raised in a certain barn. Nearly all pig farmers go through a Pork Quality Assurance certification, DeWitte said, which she helps teach at the university.
"There are industry standard recommendation of square footage for pigs of all different sizes," she said. "(The standards) tell you the certain number of people you need to take care of that many pigs, and the certain amount of manure that can be produced and spread on surrounding acreage."
DeWitte said that 2,000 hogs at one gestational or nursery unit is a "very common" size.
"If you're asking if that is a lot or too many pigs in a barn, it's not," DeWitte said.
AWI proposed changes in 2019 to the National Fire Protection Association’s code for animal housing facilities, which if passed by NFPA will be included in the 2022 version of the code. The organization also submitted a petition with 10,000 signatures to the U.S Poultry & Egg Association, calling on the industry to implement fire prevention.
Findings from a recent AWI report suggest that the biggest risk factors for barn fires are malfunctioning heating devices or electrical equipment. AWI data also shows that roughly three times as many barn fires occurred in winter than during the summer. Currently no regulations exist in the U.S. to protect farm animals from barn fires, said Granger.
"We'd like to see more sprinklers in these types of facilities, and better smoke detection systems and carbon monoxide systems," Granger said.
DeWitte pushes back on that claim and said pig barns are generally built with metal and concrete and constructed specifically "not to burn."
"I think that for these barns, all the code and precautions that need to be taken are taken for," DeWitte said. "More often than not, it's a fluke and tragedy to have a fire like that."