Dairy fire

Fire trucks pump water into the hay storage barn at Sar-Ben Dairy near St. Paul, Ore.

ST. PAUL, Ore. — A large hay fire that ignited Oct. 6 at an organic dairy in Oregon was likely caused by spontaneous combustion, according to officials.

The blaze was reported at 10:22 a.m. at Sar-Ben Farms in St. Paul, about 20 miles north of Salem in the Willamette Valley.

Crews from five local fire departments assisted on scene, and smoke was visible for several miles. No people or cows were injured.

Steve Pierson, who owns the dairy with his wife, Susan, said the fire started inside a metal-roofed barn where they were storing about 800 tons of mostly alfalfa for winter feed. Sar-Ben Farms milks 290 cows, and is a member of the Organic Valley co-op.

Spontaneous combustion is not uncommon in hay bales, especially if the hay is wet. Because hay insulates, the internal temperatures can rise above 130 degrees. The moisture then causes a chemical reaction, producing flammable gas.

The hay was valued at about $280 per ton, or $224,000 total. What didn’t burn is now so wet that Pierson said it could begin to mold quickly, making it unsuitable for feeding his cows.

Buying more hay is not only costly, Pierson said, but because it must be organic, it may be more difficult to find.

“There are way more conventional growers than organic growers,” Pierson said. “It’s just a major inconvenience at this point.”

Pierson praised the quick response by firefighters, who were able to save the barn and other nearby structures.

“That was a huge deal for us,” he said. “We should all be proud of the volunteer fire departments we have in our rural areas.”

Mark Daniel, a firefighter and spokesman for the St. Paul Fire District, said hay fires can be challenging because the bales are so tightly compressed, making for a lot highly flammable material.

The St. Paul Fire District was assisted on scene by the Aurora Fire District, Tualatin Valley Fire & Rescue, Woodburn Fire District and Dundee Fire Department. Daniel said the farm also removed burning hay from the barn and left it to smolder in a field, away from buildings and property.

“They have irrigation on it right now,” Daniel said. “It will eventually go out.”

Pierson said he is not certain how moisture got into the hay bales that led to spontaneous combustion. A fifth-generation dairy, Sar-Ben Farms went organic in 2005 and sells milk to Organic Valley to make butter at a creamery in McMinnville.

Pierson said he has been amazed by the outpouring of support from his neighbors, some of whom have offered feed to help the family get by in the short term.

“It’s really cool to see that, when something like this happens, people are willing to step up,” Pierson said. “We appreciate it more than we can possibly verbalize.”

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