A fire is one of those things that we all dread but how many of us stop and think about what we could do to minimise the risks?, writes John Sones.

 On a smallholding as with larger farms, there are two main causes of fires: accidental and deliberate and each should be looked at separately to minimise the chance of it ever happening to you. So why not make a New Year resolution now to check the safety arrangements on your holding?

Fortunately arson attacks do not happen very often but there are still precautions that should be taken. Accidental causes can vary from a carelessly discarded lit cigarette or machinery striking flints and stones during harvesting to a bonfire that spreads.

I remember the days when stubble burning was widely practised and witnessed a lit field getting out of hand to such an extent that I felt it necessary to call the Fire Brigade.

Fortunately by the time they arrived, some strenuous efforts had brought it under control again but I saw first hand the powerful and frightening effects that fire can have.

Some fire facts and advice: “Every year in the UK 1,700 farm buildings and 66,000 areas of grassland are destroyed by fire. Fifty percent of these fires are started deliberately, either as an act of mindless vandalism or as a fraudulent insurance claim,” - source Northumberland Farm Safety Working Group.

Trusting that no ‘Smallholder’ reader is considering defrauding their insurance company, I will now look at some of the steps which can be taken to help prevent arson and accidental fires.

Some of the suggested measures will also help deter persons from committing other types of crime such as theft of fuel and also reduce the risk of some kinds of farm accidents occurring.

Arson The nature of a smallholding means that there will always be suitable materials around for a determined person to use to light a fire. However, by running the holding efficiently these risks can be minimised. For example, fuel, fertiliser and pesticides should be kept separately securely locked away and outside tanks padlocked and ideally situated out of sight.

Hay and straw should be removed from the fields as soon as possible after harvesting and stored separately from other buildings especially those housing livestock or containing fuel, chemicals or machinery. If you use a stacking system for your hay or straw, the stacks should be of reasonable size and at least ten metres apart.

There are also other factors to consider if stacks are away from the main yard such as the accessibility of water or by a fire appliance.

Some basic crime prevention measures can be employed to deter arsonists. These include providing or repairing fences and gates, keeping buildings secure and if necessary installing intruder sensors and alarms.

Accidental fires: When siting stacks, they should not be placed on top of a gas pipeline or under overhead wires. Apart from the risk of fire damage to the later, apparently if a stack heats up which they can do, the electric field above can cause an explosion.

Some smallholdings operate small camp sites or allow picnicking to take place. The areas where this is permitted should be clearly defined and it is recommended that open fires and barbecues are not allowed.

Litter containers should be provided and emptied regularly bearing in mind that glass bottles in particular if left lying around can cause fires in the hot weather as they are able to focus the suns rays.

This danger also applies of course to any area of the holding where bottles might be found. Children should also be supervised by parents.

As a general rule, ensure that all cigarettes are completely extinguished and that water supplies are in working order in case of emergency. A good safety measure is to prevent anyone smoking in and close to any of the farm buildings.

Are there any laws covering fire safety? Bearing in mind the amount of legislation that exists, it will come as no surprise that fire safety is included.

Although it does not apply to fields, woods or other land forming part of an agricultural or forestry undertaking, it does apply to agricultural buildings and land within their vicinity. The order requires the “responsible person” to conduct a fire risk assessment and maintain adequate and suitable fire precautions.

A responsible person is the employer for a place of work or the person in control of the premises in connection with any trade, business or undertaking. In any other case, it will be the owner of the premises. The change in the law also brought in self-employed people who were previously exempt. The duties of the responsible person are designed to protect not only employees but also anyone who is either on the premises or in the immediate vicinity who might be at risk from a fire on the premises.

Having spoken to the Statutory Advice and Enforcement section of my local Fire and Rescue Service, whether or not the regulations will apply depends on the way a smallholding is set up and run.

Single private dwellings are exempt but a smallholding may not fall into this category. I would advise that you contact your local fire service and seek their advice to be clear on your legal position.

Although at the end of the day it is unlikely that a smallholding will be inspected, surely it is more about being safe than whether you are “legal” or not or exempt from the regulations?

How can I make my holding safer? Some examples of basic general safety measures include providing and maintaining fire extinguishers (there are different types according to the source of the fire), providing some kind of alarm which could be a hand bell and making sure building exits are kept clear and if necessary signed if people are likely to visit who do not know the layout.

Fire prevention precautions include: n Be careful if you are welding or using a blow type torch that you only do so away from any combustible material. Also, have an extinguisher close by just in case.

n Refuel equipment outdoors and beware of spilling the fuel onto a hot engine.

n Ensure any heaters are well ventilated and away from combustibles n Maintain electrical equipment and check general wiring n Disconnect or unplug electrical equipment and appliances when not in use n Ensure any electrical repairs are done by a qualified electrician n Install lightning protection on buildings n Installing fire danger signs What should I do if there is a fire? The first and most obvious action is to call the fire service immediately.

This includes giving as much detail as possible about the location of the fire including the full address and postcode.

Also ensure that the phone number that you have given has someone checking in case the fire service needs to call you back.

Having someone at an appropriate place to direct the appliance in will also be very helpful.

If fire strikes n Only attempt to fight the fire if it is safe to do so and with the correct type of extinguishing material. In addition, n Be prepared to evacuate livestock if necessary n Make sure that the fire service are aware of potential hazards such as gas cylinders, chemicals etc n Inform the fire service of nearby water sources n Be ready to use farm machinery to assist the fire service if required n In the case of a crop fire, consider using farm machinery to create a fire break By preparing a fire safety plan, if the need arises, everyone can be safe and the fire tackled as quickly and safely as possible.

A New Year resolution: So why not make a New Year resolution to look around your smallholding and take action where you can to make it safer. As I said previously in the article, some measures will not only improve fire safety but will also deter crime. As well as advice available both from your local fire service and police crime prevention departments, there are also many websites which have a specific section on the subject.

So as I wish all readers a happy New Year may I also wish you all a safer one.