Tobacco Barn Fires Have you had any experience with them? How do you attack these fires?

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

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 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?




Maryland had many such barns in the southern areas of the state but they have become like hen's teeth in years because tobacco is being grown less. Alot of times when one caught fire it was surround and drown and protect exposers and hope you don't sink apparatus in mud or soft ground trying to get to it.
hello allan i also come from an rural area of far north eastern queensland austrailia tabacco used to be a large crop in the area, although they tended to use metal barns here that resembled large shipping containers, with extraction fans on top fires were mostly unheard of until the price fell out due to undercutting, then it seems there was a rise as insurance came into play. though by the time crews attend they are done for and its only exposure protection. there was also a further more disturbing down side to the collapse of this industry some farmers moved into ilegal green herb production and also amphetamine production. the latter a major concern given the volatile chemical process.

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?

Thank you very much for the reply and comments. It is rare that we get a chance to do interior attack on these structures. Often the fire are after the third firing of the barn and the tobacco is pretty dry so it like having tissue paper hanging about a smoldering fire so it goes up pretty fast . We have had the opportunity to go in and perform interior attacks, and if it’s your first time its real experience can’t see anything you have fire on the ground all around you extremely hot and a ton of tobacco over your head. For me it’s critical to evaluate if the “reward” is worth the “risk” when it comes to saving a life you’ll do almost anything and risk a lot. But for a structure that is insured (yes they can actually get insurance for these barns if you can imagine) and can be replaced the risk taken is going to be minimal
As for water we are pretty fortunate in our area we don’t have to travel too far to hit a main road which usually is usually serviced by hydrants in most cases within 3 or 4 of miles or closer. When we receive call to one of these potential tobacco barn fires it the responsibility of officer in the first truck to determine if he feels the call may be an actual structural fire. We can usual confirm this by asking a dispatcher a couple of questions was the 911 call made by the property owner (if the answer is yes we can assume we have a structure fire), has dispatch received multiply calls? (If the answer is yes we can assume we have a structure fire) In these cases the officer in the first responding truck automatically requests tanker assistance from the three closest neighboring stations that usually gives us about 11000 gallons of water initially. We set up porta-tanks and initiate tanker shuttle. The system works pretty well and it’s surprising how much water we can move. Knowing the area the IC can also take advantage of local water sources that may be closer such as ponds pools streams etc. This past weekend we actually had fully involved tobacco barn fire and we were able to draft from a pond which was about 400 feet from the structure. We have a 500 gpm porta pump which we used to supply our pumper (one 2 ½ and two 1 ¾ lines pulled) and the tankers supplied our aerial which had two 1 ¾ hand lines and the tower being used (ps our aerial has an 1850 gpm pump so we can move some water with it if we need to)
If the dispatcher comes back with information that it was a single call from a cell phone form a passerby? (In this case we still send all our trucks until we can confirm it’s not an actual structure fire but usually when it this type of call is just someone who is driving through our community and is unfamiliar with “smoke barns” and makes the call).
As for funding for the aerial we got pretty lucky on this one we had an old 75 foot squirt that failed when they did an inspection on it the frame was bent so it was taken out of service immediately so we started looking for a replacement. E-one had a demo unit that was used in the New York area they want to move, it was near the end of the year so they made an offer that was pretty hard not to jump on. As for funding just looking at the tobacco industry in our area it generates about 10million a year not including new barns that might be built . We also service a small urban area b with industry and commercial property, the town has a population of about 5000 people. The entire area we service has a population of about 15000
Tobacco in our arae is still processed with the leaf on the plant and teh plant is hung of a wooden slat ( LOT of fire loadf here) The construction of the barns in our area has changed somewhat over the years, at one time the cement foundation was fairly short from 6 inches to a foot high above the ground and the first tier of tobacco was very close to the ground, so not a lot of separation between the fires and the hanging plants. In newer construction the barns have a 8 to 10 foot high cement wall then wood construction above that and the tobacco is much higher above the fires which has reduces the number of fires. A lot of the barns now have tin on the roofs which actually makes a job a lot harder if it’s a fully involved fire and the structure collapses when then have to pull the tin off the burning debris and tobacco to extinguish the remaining fire. We always try to extinguish the fire before it get to this point because it so much harder for overhaul. We can’t let the barns go because of the adjacent structures these barns are usually built in groups of three or four barns ( it would be easier for us and easier clean up for the farmer when it’s a complete loss to just let it burn but we can’t for a lot of reasons, insurance etc.)
I think it’s an awesome suggestion regarding the dry sprinkler system it would certainly make our job easier if we could just hook up to an exterior connection and pump water into the top of the barn through a sprinkler system. The big issue will be to get the farmers to invest in this sort of system. The only drawback to this system would only be our response time relative to the start of the fire. These barns are fired twenty four hours a day. Framers check on their barns often but it’s not monitored all the time. The key to us being able to extinguish these types of fire depends a lot on how soon the fire is discovered. When they catch on fire they go up quickly as you can imagine because it like having paper hanging over the fires when the tobacco is close to being cured. And the biggest culprit for these fires starting is usually high winds so once the fire gets going there is usually lots of wind to fan the fire once it’s started
In a lot of cases thats exactly what we end up doing we had one this past weekend and it was through the roof when we arrived so we just hit it hard with a alot of water. We have had the opportuinity to save a few over the years, but mostly its about protecting the nearby structures thats for sure.

And as for getting trucks stuck Well unfortunately I can’t say we have never gotten a truck or two stuck in the mud its happened more often then I want to admit. Most of the farms in our area are pretty big so they usually have some pretty big equipment around to pull us out of the mud. I have say it’s an awful feeling watching your $600 000 aerial being pulled out of the mud with a huge four wheel drive tractor. Don’t relax until its out and we are sure there’s no damage
It’s in our sog’s to evaluate and determine based on what’s happening at the time if are we go offensive or defensive. The big issue I have and don’t get me wrong I have a lot of confidence in my guys and their abilities. But being a volunteer station there’s no guarantee that we are going to get one, none, or all our officers at every call. For the most part we usually have at least two of us (we only have four officers in our station chief, deputy chief and two captains). I wanted to lay the ground rules that our initial and standing orders was to initiate an exterior attack until we can with confidence determine it was safe to do so initiate an interior attack. I have come under some criticism for this position. I have a group of firefighters that are very gun hoe and I don’t always think they consider the risk vs the reward. They just do and don’t think about what could go wrong. I have tried to tell them I don’t want to be the guy that has to go to their home tell their wife, kids, parents etc. that they were trapped in a burning tobacco barn and their not coming home. Some of these guys just don’t seem to understand or realize that this is a real possibility. I was one of those guys myself at one time, invincible and now after year experience and seeing what goes on and the tragedies that occur in the fire service all too often, we need to evaluate the Risk vs the reward. These guys are doers men and women of action and they don’t always think about what could go wrong .

PS thanks for the suggestion regarding the dry sprinkler system i have talked to a few people about this already we will have to see where it goes from here

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.


Moose thanks for the feedback and the awesome suggestions and training ideas. We are currently going through a series of self-rescue and RIT training at station. And i have to tell you there are guys that just don't get it and don’t take it serious. They seem to have this mentality that they are invincible that it won’t happen to them or they just too smart and know it all. But i am going to continue to work with these guys one way or the other I am going to talk to my captains and we have completed the RIT and self-rescue training i think we will put your training suggestion into action
Not sure if other stations have the same issue i have in my station but sure is frustrating when what your trying to do is keep yours guys safe and make sure they come home, and they don’t see it that way

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