Fire in a pig house may be among the worst things that can happen to a producer. Unlikely as it may be, in the event of a blaze, it is good to be prepared, both immediately and for the near future. Brenda Jackson, in St Thomas, Ontario, Canada, had to start again from scratch after losing her 2,000 sow breeding farm.
By Vincent ter Beek
It happened on a Sunday night in August 2007, Brenda Jackson recalls. “When I went to bed at midnight, everything was fine. I was sleeping and heard fire trucks, thinking the TV was on.” People living further down the road, however, saw smoke, ran to her house and woke her up, she tells, “otherwise we would have slept through all of this burning. Anyway, when we got out there, everything was completely consumed in fire.”
When the following Monday morning broke, the size of the disaster at Pork Talbot Farms slowly became clear to its full extent. On this site, located near the town of St Thomas in southern Ontario, Canada, flames had completely destroyed the farrowing section. Additional sow and gilt houses were also affected by sparks and smoke. Altogether about 800 out of 2,000 sows had perished through the night – young piglets simply had disappeared.
As coldly as these figures can now be summed up, similarly great however was the complete chaos that following morning. Imagine daytime temperatures rising to over 30˚C, in combination with smoking remnants of what used to be a farrowing barn. It wasn’t clear how things happened, what exactly was destroyed and what not, which animals had perished – and which lived – and what to do with them. There were no answers, only questions and more questions – from virtually every one, Brenda Jackson recalls. There was no time to sleep, she says, in the first days after the fire. She had about 750 phone calls in this period, dealing with anything that needed to be arranged.
Paul Morris, DVM, a veterinarian based in London, Ontario, was closely involved with the events in St Thomas in the days and weeks after the fire. Part of his role was to maintain animal welfare and document and address animal health concerns – a job easier said than done.
“Animals were sent to slaughter if they were healthy enough,” Morris explains. “If they were within a few weeks of farrowing, they were allowed to farrow. We are not allowed to transport sows that are near term. The owner did not wish to abort any of them. One then has to consider the welfare of the sow and/or the welfare of newborn piglets and try to adapt a dry sow barn into a farrowing unit. The extra labour, time and expected increase in pre-weaning mortality all have to be considered.”
Animal welfare was obviously only one of the many elements that urgently required attention in the immediate aftermath of the blaze. After things had calmed down, and the majority of animals had been taken care of, Morris realised that all knowledge and insights gathered during the fire and subsequent chaotic times may be helpful information for others for future emergencies. He decided to dedicate a presentation to his and Jackson’s experiences at the London Swine Conference, in January 2008. In his review, called Fire Disaster Recovery: Producer and Veterinary Perspectives, Morris identified three major themes that required immediate attention. In essence, he analysed, this came down to people, animals and the environment.
These experiences, of course, were related to this farm, but could apply to any location, Morris says. “In my experience disaster plans like the one required for barn fires are few and far between. You would like to think it will not happen to you or your clients, but it eventually does to some degree. Disaster plans need to be customised to each farm but there are common elements such as making up the emergency contact list that are common to all emergencies. This issue was certainly brought to the forefront once this disaster occurred.”
In order to summaries all experiences and remarks, Morris and Jackson therefore jointly created a to-do list, just in case a fire would happen again, and this was included in the London Swine Conference presentation.
The list includes a lot of useful guidelines as to what to do when a fire like this breaks out (some are listed in the box: ‘Fire – a checklist’).
During the process of re-building, several buildings of course also received extra attention in terms of fire prevention. New dry walls were added to prevent repetition, retardant materials were included in the ceilings and flooring. Heat lights did not return in the new stalls. In addition, a fire-retardant sluice was incorporated in the new building as well.
Times, however, have moved on since that disastrous night, as in June 2009, after almost two years without any animals on-farm, the first boars were about to appear at Pork Talbot Farms. Jackson indicated that she has grabbed the opportunity to come back better, and more animal friendly as the farm used to be prior to the fire. As can be seen in the box ‘Pork Talbot Farms: Now & the future’, a lot of new ideas could be put in place, Jackson indicates. “Every time you suffer a tragedy a new door opens.”
As from this fall, Pork Talbot Farms will serve as the local breeding herd for Canadian breeder Genesus for Ontario province and the American corn belt – and has hence included two more barns in the production process, located across the road. One house will occupy about 150 Landrace and Yorkshire boars and a laboratory; the other will serve as a quarantine house for young gilts. Piglets will be shipped straight after weaning.