UTICA — Two fires which struck hay barns approximately five miles apart in the same week were both declared by fire officials to be caused by spontaneous combustion. Following the investigations and cleanup, local fire departments are now tallying the cost.
The fire on Bell Church Road at the Licking-Knox County line July 8, which destroyed a hay barn and hundreds of round bales belonging to the Cornelius family, created a damage total for the homeowners of around $80,000.
According to Utica Fire Capt. Brooks Schmidlin, the total cost to his fire department for the fuel, damaged equipment, food and water for the firefighters, and firefighting foam was around $7,000.
That total includes two hoses which were damaged in the fire, 250 gallons of firefighting foam used — which runs around $90 for a five-gallon bucket — and the cost of trucking in 250 gallons of diesel fuel to refuel the fire trucks, which were idling on the scene for several hours.
Not included in that total is the amount of time lost at work by the volunteer firefighters who were also on the scene for several hours. Schmidlin said most employers cover the cost of any time taken off to fight a fire. Farmers and other self-employed firefighters must cover their own lost time.
When another barn fire broke out within the same week, those same firefighters found themselves taxing their resources once again at Shipley Farms on Reynolds Road.
According to the incident commander, Homer Assistant Fire Chief Allen Bash, the cost to his department was also around $7,000. This included $5,000 spent on firefighting foam, as well as the cost of damaged hoses and fuel costs. The cost to the homeowner was around $250,000.
Bash and Schmidlin said claims have been filed with the farm owners’ insurance companies, which could cover some or all of the expenses paid out by the fire departments.
If insurance does not cover the expenses, Bash said the departments will have to recoup their expenses by other means.
“Then we would have to seek reimbursement from the homeowner,” he said.
Schmidlin said the cooperation of 12 other departments which assisted with the firefighting effort kept his department’s resources from being exhausted.
Bash said there was no reason to call in a state fire marshal investigator to investigate the fires, despite the unusual timing, close proximity of the fires, and both starting the same way.
“It is unusual that they both happened that close together, but it’s not out of the ordinary,” agreed Schmidlin. “The state fire marshal was not called in because nobody believed it was anything but spontaneous combustion.”
“It was wet and still green,” explained Schmidlin. “We saw green hay at both buildings.”
When hay is cut and not allowed to dry completely before being baled and stored, the heat produced as the green, wet hay decomposes can reach a high enough temperature to cause the hay to ignite.
Bash said the hay stored in the barn at Shipley Farms had been treated with preservative to prevent it from breaking down and causing a fire, but the preservative may have become ineffective with time.
Bash said arson was ruled out in both fires.
“The whole entire end of that barn was closed up; same with the other one,” he said. “Everything was packed up tight. There was no way to get in to start it.”
“Both fires were identical,” Bash said. “There was straw on the bottom and hay stacked on top which could have given it more oxygen to take off.”
“It had been extremely hot out,” Schmidlin explained of the conditions which led up to the spontaneously started fires. “You have the heat trapped inside with the metal [barn siding] around it. As tight as the rolls were packed in there, the hay didn’t have room to breathe.”
Farmers may bale hay a little too soon in an effort to keep it from being ruined by rain. If a bale appears wet or green, Schmidlin recommends not taking a chance by storing it.
“Leave it sit out as long as you can,” he advised. “If you lose that one at least you’re going to lose just one. You’re not going to lose everything.”