Fire on Texas dairy killed 18,000 cows, ruled accidental

This still frame from drone footage of the 2,136,973 square-foot facility at South Fork Dairy shows the fire damage involved the entire roof of the cross-ventilated building. The Texas State Fire Marshal’s office is calling it accidental, indicating machinery malfunction as the cause and further investigation continuing. One employee remains hospitalized and 18,000 dairy cows are dead. Photo captured from drone video courtesy Blake Bednarz, West Texas Tech

By Sherry Bunting, Farmshine, April 19, 2023

DIMMITT, Texas — The Texas State Fire Marshal confirmed the April 10 catastrophic explosion and fire on a West Texas dairy was accidental, saying in its April 17 statement: “There was no evidence found that would indicate foul play.”

The explosion and fire occurred at South Fork Dairy near Dimmitt in Castro County, leaving one female employee still hospitalized for critical injuries and an estimated 18,000 dairy cows dead.

The recently constructed 40-acre cross-ventilated barn housed nearly 20,000 cows with estimates that one to two percent of the herd survived. It is one of several dairies owned by the Frank Brand family. At this site, 60 to 80 people were employed.

According to the Fire Marshal’s press statement, the investigation is ongoing, but has so far “revealed evidence… that the fire originated in the northern end, more specifically Pen 3, and was the result of a failure of a piece of equipment that is used within the dairy on a daily basis.”

In the first 24 hours after the fire, on April 11, Castro County Sheriff Sal Rivera reported to local news stations that the machinery involved was likely a ‘honey-vac’ used in pumping manure.

While the April 17 statement by state fire officials does not specifically cite manure pumping equipment, the Fire Marshal did state: Because of the size of the fire, the insured loss amount, the number of cattle killed, and the fact that two other pieces of equipment, identical to the one that caught fire, have burned previously — one at this dairy and one at another dairy — there will be a more in-depth investigation of the reason for the failure by other origin-and-cause investigators and engineers that are experts in the field of equipment failures.”

Officials also reported that the explosion was the result of flammable liquids, including liquid fuel, hydraulic oil and other materials, “expanding rapidly,” causing a “smoke explosion.” The preliminary report made no mention of methane as a trigger or an accelerant, contrary to the widespread social media discussions blaming methane accumulation in the barn or blaming a methane digester.

In fact, anaerobic digestion was reportedly not yet operating at South Fork Dairy. According to a January 2023 Clean Energy announcement, the Renewable Natural Gas project there was set to begin construction in February or March 2023.

Concerns shared within the dairy industry revolve around how quickly the fire spread through the roof insulation of the 2 million square foot steel-construction dairy facility.

On April 17, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality said Amarillo office investigators “continue to provide assistance to South Fork Dairy to ensure that dead livestock and any other debris is disposed of in accordance with TCEQ rules and regulations.”

This task must be done as quickly and efficiently as possible, but experts expect the cleanup of this many carcasses to take several weeks even with the aggressive support of teams of professionals, volunteers, officials and university extension.

The local and agricultural community is supporting the Brand family, and a ‘meal train’ was started by a neighboring dairy and is funded by companies giving donations to feed the minimum 100 to 150 people working at the site daily for the next three to four weeks.

Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller released a statement shortly after the fire, calling it “a tragic blow.”

He thanked law enforcement and fire and EMS personnel and urged prayers for the injured employee and the owners and workers as they deal with the impact and cleanup from this disaster.

“We don’t know all the facts yet surrounding this disaster… This was the deadliest barn fire for cattle in Texas history, and the investigation and cleanup may take some time. We all want to know what the facts are. There are lessons to be learned, and the impact of this fire may influence the immediate area and the industry itself. Once we know the cause and the facts surrounding this tragedy, we will make sure the public is fully informed — so tragedies like this can be avoided in the future,” noted Commissioner Miller in his statement.

South Fork Dairy is among many relatively new construction dairies housing large numbers of cows in cross-ventilated facilities that can be 24-rows wide, or wider, and are enclosed, automated systems that do not present the option of natural ventilation.

This is a horrific tragedy for the owners and employees that had worked with these cows.

The complete investigation is expected to take some time to learn as much as possible not just about how it started, but how it spread so rapidly and other aspects of the explosion and fire that could pertain to questions of safety for the future.


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