Fires roaring through Minnesota farms this year have left a trail of charred barns and more than 25,000 animal carcasses.

Last week alone, 7,500 turkeys and about 200 hogs perished in separate blazes in southern Minnesota.

While such fires are a long-standing scourge of farm life, livestock building blazes in the state reached their highest point in five years in 2013.

Massive casualties in the Upper Midwest, the heart of the nation’s livestock production, have surprised even longtime professionals: 300,000 hens perished in La Grange, Wis., in a winter fire that was the largest the town’s fire chief had ever fought; 150,000 hens died in a Galt, Iowa, fire this spring; and a blaze that consumed 13,000 hogs near Truman, Minn., in October was the worst that a consultant for the state’s Board of Animal Health had come across in his 40 years on the job.

“The numbers are just astronomical,” said Karen Davis, president of United Poultry Concerns, a Virginia-based nonprofit that promotes respectful treatment of animals.

The increasingly large scale of farms means more animals are vulnerable to dying when a disaster strikes. Yet how much protection livestock should receive from fires has stirred a debate among producers and national animal rights activists in recent years, even as insurance companies have worked with farmers to improve safety in barns.

In 2012, concerns over animal safety led a committee of the National Fire Protection Association to propose a requirement that farmers install sprinkler and smoke control systems in livestock housing, prompting pushback from major poultry and dairy producers.

The equipment is already required for animals that are more dangerous or difficult to move, such as elephants.

The panel voted down the measure, but said it would further research the issue and has taken public comments on it into this year. The association has since acknowledged that requiring special equipment in every barn would not work for everyone, noting, for example, that sprinkler discharge could hurt more sensitive animals.

Costly proposal

Producers have argued that the installation and maintenance of sprinkler systems could easily cost billions of dollars and would be impractical.

They say many farms lack an adequate water supply to service sprinkler systems, which would require adding storage tanks and fire pumps, digging and maintaining more wells, and other items needed to make a dry sprinkler system operable.

Michael Formica, a lawyer at the National Pork Producers Council, told the association that fires are bad for business because when animals perish, the meat, milk or eggs produced from them cease and farmers’ livelihoods are at risk. Protecting animals from fire “is always foremost on their minds,” he wrote.

Fire codes require less of barns than they do of homes and office buildings, and livestock shelters are already located in rural areas where there’s less water for fire protection.

In Minnesota, at least, the number of livestock building fires is still less than it was before five years ago. In 2006, more than 200 livestock buildings caught fire, a figure that fell steadily over the next few years before starting another climb in 2010.

The state fire marshal’s office does not track the number of animals killed in those fires. And the causes aren’t always determined, though some occur because of electrical and heating issues.

The deaths are still a fraction of the millions of animals produced overall — Minnesota farmers raise 7.6 million hogs and 46 million turkeys a year.

David Preisler, who heads the Minnesota Pork Producers Association, said insurance companies are working much more closely with farms to ensure they are following standards to prevent fires. They now require that farms keep backup generators outside the barn to lessen the likelihood of fire.

Barns also now commonly have alarm systems linked to farmers’ cellphones that monitor temperature and electricity.

“There’s been some pretty proactive work done with insurance companies and farmers trying to make sure we’re doing prevention,” he said.

Most of the state’s fire regulations look at the loss of human life, noted Bob Fiske, chairman of the code committee of the state’s Fire Chiefs Association.

Noting there’s still a battle to get sprinklers into more single-family homes, he added, “I don’t see the state of Minnesota saying, ‘OK, you need to sprinkle all barns and protect the barns,’ when we’re saying you don’t even have to protect your family.”

Carl Denkinger largely agrees. He’s visited farms all over Minnesota for the past 40 years as a consultant to the state’s Board of Animal Health and has seen producers in tears after losing their animals to barn fires.

Most animals die of smoke inhalation, he said, and some burn.

One remedy he’s talked about with the animal health board is to require farmers to have a written plan for moving animals in an emergency, and disposing of them if they can’t be saved.

Losses pile up

Gruesome losses have added up in this year’s colder months.

In La Grange, Wis., Fire Chief John Duerst said when he arrived at a massive blaze one February night, he saw there would be no way to rescue the 300,000 birds from the metal barn.

“My first thought: We’re going to be here a long time,” he said. “ … Easily the biggest fire I’ve ever seen.”

In late October, four employees escaped from barns that caught fire at the Cougar Run Farm near Truman, Minn., while more than 13,000 hogs perished.

“I’ve never seen anything worse,” said Denkinger.

Sean Simpson, vice president and general counsel of Pipestone System, which owns the farm, said replacing the livestock would cost $1 million, in addition to at least $6 million to rebuild after the fire.

He said the structures had extinguishers and alarms that went off, but “it was just that the fire was so quick that there was nothing that could be done.

“Sometimes a catastrophe is a catastrophe,” said Simpson.

The new buildings, he said, will have better ventilation and air flow.

By comparison, the fire last week at a hog farm in Newry Township near Austin, Minn., seemed small: About 200 pigs died. Four days later, on Friday, workers from Darling International visited the site to take carcasses in a special truck to a Blue Earth plant for processing into animal feed.