Our station is located in a largely agricultural area and one the major farm crops that IS grown in our area is cured tobacco. For those not familiar with the process involved in curing tobacco in this manner I will explain the basic curing process. Tobacco plants are cut and then placed onto wooden slats, 5 or six plants to a slat the slats are then taken from the field to a barn which can contain up to 6 or 10 tiers depending on the size of the barn. The slats are hung from the tiers starting from the top down. There is space left between each slat to allow air to move freely up to the top of the barn. Once the barn is full on the ground below the tobacco fires are started with sawdust and hardwood, the idea being to cure the tobacco with the smoke and heat produced from the fires. The fires are usual just smoldering fires but at times can flame up.
We have about 125 of these barns in our service area and generate about 8 million in revenue annually the barns can cost anywhere between 60 000 to 10000 to build depending on size and construction. Older barns where constructed with lower cement walls maybe 24 inches high, the newer barns now have ten foot high concrete walls, the remaining structure is wood . Barns are usually built in groups in close proximity of each other and a lot of times the farmers place piles of wood and sawdust between the barns to make things easier for themselves ( definitely not to our benefit )
The curing process usually takes 4 to five fires to cure the tobacco complete in the end the tobaccos is very dry kind of like having “ paper hanging in the barn with a fire under it “
So you have kind of an idea of what is going on if you didn’t already know
We usually have 2-5 of these barns go up in a year which is not surprising based on what’s going on in the barns. Often the cause can be linked to the following a slat is knocked down by the wind or a raccoon falling on the smoldering fires below and igniting. High winds cause sparks or the fires to flame up catching the tobacco above to catch fire (most often when we get called to these fires it’s a windy night.
In the past depending on the status of the fire on our arrival we set up our aerial open the gable end of the barn and use a 30 degree stream and send water down the inside peak of the barn. We would also make entry into the barn and attempt to find the location where the fire initiated. These fires from our experience usually go straight up like a chimney and then spread once they hit the top of the barn. We found that if we could get in soon enough find this “chimney” and get water up from the bottom we could save a good chunk of the crop and the barns (yes we have saved a number of these barns from burning to the ground if you can imagine)
The officers in our station recently reviewed our aggressive interior attack approach on these barn fires and felt that we were putting our firefighters in a situation that we could not guarantee their safety, knowing that tones of tobacco could fall barring them (It is very difficult to determine the stability of the barn and the crop hanging once a fire has started) . We have decided that we would no longer send fire fighters inside under the tobacco to fight the fire from inside but would continue to perform an aggressive attack from the exterior through the gable ends and exterior access from the ground and protect exposures.
Does your station respond to similar tobacco barn fires what is your attack? When we made this decision to not attack these fires from the inside there was an outcry from our station members, they still want to continue with an interior attack and feel it’s justified to change our approach? The officers in our station don’t feel it worth risking our firefighters lives. What do you think
My area has no tobacco farms. However my mother is from Ky. and her family did and does have tobacco farms. Therefore I know what you are up against in these fires. Have you thought about getting with the farmers and putting in an inexpensive PVC dry sprinkler system?
When you are on the scene of these fires, do you decide then wether or not to go interior or is your standing SOP to go defensive regardless of the amount of fire?
When tobacco was a big commodity in our response area, we responded quite often. The tobacco barn in the picture had long since been replaced by insulated metal skin barns (similar to a mobile home) It was gas powered with a ventilation system to circulate air. The tobacco was placed in bales and hung to cure.
Usually everything worked like clockwork. Sometimes the heat was increased on the unit to cure faster. This would cause flare ups. This usually occured in 100+ degree heat; couple that with 40% relative humidity and you had a mess.
Our normal operations were simple; Unpack the barn, spread out the burning bales and extinquish. The units we had dealings with were "cheaper to build" and more cost efficient.
As for aggressive interior work, the resounding answer should revolve around one motto "Everyone Goes Home". What is the risk involved? What are the benefits? Perform a risk analysis each and every time.... No firefighter's life is worth saving a barn full of tobacco...
Some blanket rules are there for safety purposes and just make sense. I'm not sure that fits your scenario. This is one where training and experience really comes into play - if your officers or first due firefighters have enough of that to correctly (SAFELY) assess the fire (assess construction, read the smoke and fire progression, have knowledge of how well maintained and organizated the structure and contents are, etc...) then they can make a good call as to whether or not to mount an interior attack. That said, I am very, very doubtful that a safe interior attack could be mounted given the lightweight construction types, fuel load, and time constraints - on scene with a minimum staff of 7 (OIC, engineer, utility/vent, primary attack team, and RIT) from time of alarm has to be a tremendous and well coordinated challenge and would seriously push the envelope for even a well staffed career department. I really like 55 Truck's comments on doing an inexpensive dry sprinkler system of some sort.
Here's what I'd really like to know: as a rural department, where the heck did you find the funds for an aerial and how do you supply it with adequate water on a farm?
Risk a lot to save a lot, risk nothing to save nothing.
This is a barn, barns can and do get re-built. Crops? Yes, thay are important to the farmer and the community depending on those crops, but in all honesty, crops will grow again too.
So what we are dealing with here are some macho, overly gung ho firefighters that are too dangerous in my book. These firefighters need to be trained and trained again about how dangerous and foolish it is to act in that capacity. Bravery is one thing, but all out carelessness is another all too aften seen tragedy. Show these members videos of firefighter funerals, and the families weeping, and the parade of firefighters all lowering their heads, and the extreme outcomes that come from them charging in blindly to a place that can easily be re-built.
Chief, I am not bashing your members one bit, but as a Captain myself who routinely sees this careless behavior all over my county, and members that explain it as being "Heros" I know what you are going through. I try to use a training method at my house called "Shock & Awe", similar to the attack on Sadam years ago. I have what appears to be a routine drill with a topic like stretching the interior attack line. But when they are inside and no one else can see I crawl out of the smoke and tell the crew to lay down, they are now pinned under a ceiling collapse. Than I wait to see what the others do and how they react to the PASS alarms going off inside. If it takes too long to react than I tell them they are attending funerals for their brothers/sisters this weekend. This usually snaps them out of whatever "Hero" complex they are suffering from.
Honestly, if this were my area I would do as mentioned, approach the farmers and discuss installing the cheap PVC sprinkler systems to help get water on the fire quicker from the safety of the outside. If that fails than its surround and drown until you get enough wet stuff on the red stuff to put it out. The safety of the firefighters should never be jeopardised for something like a barn that can be easily re-built. Try having their wives/husbands help you scare some sense into them, that seems to work too!! LOL
Good luck with whatever you guys try, and I hope you guys stay safe.