Texas dairy explosion: what caused fire in South Fork Dairy farm this week, how many cows died, what happened?

The barn fire is likely to be the most catastrophic since such incidents began being monitored in 2013

(Photos: Getty Images/Castro County Sheriff’s Office)(Photos: Getty Images/Castro County Sheriff’s Office)
(Photos: Getty Images/Castro County Sheriff’s Office)

The deadliest barn fire in American history has claimed the lives of more than 18,000 cows after an explosion and fire at a family dairy farm in west Texas.

According to pictures and statements from the Castro County Sheriff’s Office, firefighters managed to save one employee from the South Fork Dairy in Dimmitt on Monday (10 April) as flames tore through a building and into holding pens.

Members of the family that own the farm - located in one of Texas’ counties with the highest milk production - could not be immediately contacted - and the cause of the fire is still being investigated. Here is everything you need to know about it.

What happened?

The Castro County Sheriff’s Office said a report of a fire at the farm was made at approximately 7.21pm on Monday (12.21am GMT Tuesday). Its photos show a massive column of black smoke rising from the scene. One trapped person had to be rescued and rushed to hospital in a critical condition when police and emergency workers arrived on the scene.

Sheriff Sal Rivera told local news outlet KFDA that the majority of the cattle had been lost after the fire spread to an area in which the animals were kept before being transported to a milking station and then a holding pen.

The precise number of cows lost to the fire and smoke is still unknown, but the Sheriff’s Office told the BBC an “estimated 18,000 head of cattle” had perished. That’s almost three times the daily average of cows slaughtered for meat consumption in the US.

“There’s some that survived,” Rivera said. “There’s some that are probably injured to the point where they’ll have to be destroyed.” The majority of the 18,000 cows that died in the fire were a mix of Holstein and Jersey cows, and made up almost 90% of the farm’s entire herd.

Each cow is "roughly" valued at $2,000 (£1,598) ,according to USA Today, making for a total estimated loss - not including clean-up and repair costs for buildings and machinery - of $36,000 (£28,768).

What was the cause of the fire?

The fire was the most catastrophic barn fire involving cattle to occur in the United States since the Animal Welfare Institute (AWI) started monitoring such incidents in 2013. Over 6.5 million farm animals - mostly poultry - have perished in such fires over the past 10 years.

Though the cause of the fire is yet to be confirmed, authorities believe that the facility’s machinery may have set methane gas ablaze. Rivera said a "honey badger” - a machine which he described as a "vacuum that sucks the manure and water out” - may have been the cause.

“Possibly [it] got overheated and probably the methane and things like that ignited and spread out and exploded,” he said.

What can be done to prevent future tragedies?

The AWI - one of the oldest non-profit animal protection organisations in the United States - said there are no federal restrictions safeguarding animals from fires. Only a few states, Texas not included, have established fire prevention codes for such buildings.

In response to the incident, the organisation is calling for federal legislation to avoid barn fires. In a statement sent to the BBC, the Washington DC-based group said: “We hope the industry will remain focused on this issue and strongly encourage farms to adopt common sense fire safety measures. It is hard to imagine anything worse than being burned alive.”

While some barn fires may be caused by natural disasters like lightning strikes, many others can be prevented through careful management practices and regular maintenance. The AWI’s recommendations to prevent barn fires include creating emergency action plans, having access to fire extinguishers, doing annual fire safety training, having emergency lanes in buildings, and other measures.

The AWI was founded in 1951 and has since been working on a variety of issues related to animal welfare, including wildlife conservation, farm animal welfare and the welfare of animals in laboratories and entertainment industries.

AWI advocates for stronger animal welfare laws and policies at the local, national and international levels. They also provide educational resources to the public on animal welfare issues, and work to promote more humane treatment of animals in all areas of society.