Apr 7, 2007
Fire The Ultimate Nightmare for Corn Maze Operators

Corn mazes have caught on like wildfire, an analogy that strikes fear in the hearts of maze operators – and fire marshals – across the country.

What would happen if a corn maze caught fire? The mental images are terrifying. Needless to say, one such event would probably spell the end of a popular agritourism attraction that has swept the country.

This year, the subject was on the agenda at the New Jersey annual vegetable meeting and trade show in Atlantic City and at the Indiana Horticultural Congress in Indianapolis, both held in January.

Up for discussion were good management practices and safety procedures ¬– and some regulations that have emerged. Regulations put out by the fire marshal in the state of Maryland have caused trepidation for maze operators everywhere.

The roots of this lie in the year 2002, when three unrelated events occurred within 30 days. In October, a cornfield used as a parking lot next to The Amazing Maize Maze in Paradise, Penn., caught fire and burned.

Chris Andrew of the Paradise Fire Company describes the scene on the Internet, with pictures:

“The parking lot was a cornfield, which had been mowed down that morning, allowing cars to park on top of the corn fodder. With a stiff west wind, the fire was spreading rapidly and was consuming multiple vehicles. Firefighting efforts were hampered by many factors.

“The parking area was almost half a mile off the roadway, which made access to the scene difficult. Water supply was limited, and water had to be hauled to the scene via tanker trucks and relayed to the attack engines. Initial attack crews encountered multiple vehicles on fire, with numerous explosions due to fuel tanks, and other vehicle parts. The wind was spreading the fire towards the nearby farmhouse, and the exposure had to be protected.

“Tractors and a tow truck were used to pull locked vehicles from the path of the fire. With the intensity of the fire growing, more units were called to the scene. At the height of the incident, 14 engines, 10 tankers, 5 brush units, 4 squads, one rescue and one air unit operated on scene. Once a large water supply was established, the fire was attacked with large lines and master streams and knocked down.

“When the fire was extinguished, a total of 31 cars had been completely destroyed. The Pennsylvania State Police and Fire Marshal were called to the scene to investigate. Hot exhaust contact with dry corn fodder was believed to have started the fire. The damage was estimated to be in excess of $750,000 dollars. No damage was done to the farmhouse, or the Amazing Maize Maze, and the attraction was reopened as scheduled. The Paradise Fire Company remained on scene for several hours knocking down hot spots and assisting with the investigation.”

That same month, according to another Internet report, “a terrifying fire engulfed a straw maze on a farm north of Toronto. The fire was deliberately set.

“The incident raised concerns among fire officials and others, including the Canada Safety Council, about how well the public is protected. Immediately following the fire the Ontario Fire Marshal issued an Oct. 23 communiqué, Fire Safety for Amusement Activities on Farms and Other Sites, to provide direction to the fire service.”

The Maryland Fire Marshal wasn’t just locking the barn after the horse was gone. The month before the fires, he issued “Minimum Life Safety Guidelines for Corn Maze Amusement Attractions in the State of Maryland.” They include 13 provisions that are still in effect in that state:

1. The operator must advise all employees of the fire and life safety guidelines.
2. The operator must provide safety instructions to visitors before they enter the corn maze.
3. At least two employees must monitor a corn maze during operation, at least one on an elevated platform at least 10 feet above the maze.
4. The local fire department must be notified and given the opportunity to prepare a “preplan” before the start of seasonal operations.
5. No devices producing open flame are allowed within a corn maze.
6. No smoking is permitted within the maze.
7. Not more than 200 persons per acre may be in a corn maze at any one time.
8. Motorized vehicles must not be parked within 75 feet.
9. A fire lane at least 10 feet wide must be cleared between a corn maze and structures or vegetation outside the maze.
10. After dark, visitors may only use flashlights to illuminate their travel through the maze.
11. A public address system – a bull horn or loudspeaker ¬– must be readily available to employees to assist them in making announcements to the visitors in the event of an emergency.
12. The entrance and exit from a corn maze must not be blocked or obstructed.
13. Fireworks must not be discharged within 300 feet of a corn maze.

Roger Johnson, the Indiana State Fire Marshal, brought three staff members to address farmers at the Indiana Hort Congress, to answer questions and to assure them that Indiana has no plans to implement these kinds of regulations. But he advised corn maze operators to use common sense and common safety rules.

“A cornfield fire is about the most difficult thing you can imagine,” he said. “A fire in a corn maze could be tragic and have monumental effects.”

He recommended something not on the above list: Have fire extinguishers handy.

Bruce Waterman, who operates Waterman’s Farm Market near Indianapolis, offered some advice to farmers on ways they can make corn mazes more fireproof and safer.

“Plant it late,” he said. “Make sure it’s green in October.” Last year, he planted a 114-day corn variety on June 17 and applied 140 pounds of nitrogen fertilizer to assure the corn would be succulent during October, the big maze month for the market.

For folks farther north – across the upper Midwest, Northeast and Canada – freezing is a problem, he said. Freezes can occur already in mid-September and the standing corn leaves will dry quickly. Be careful, he said.

The Watermans have five mazes. In each one, the design and construction is geared to safety and to keeping his insurance agent happy.

“Work with your insurance carrier,” he said. “Don’t lie and don’t cheat.”

The Watermans create maze paths using a tractor and tiller that incorporates residue and make a rut-free, stalk-free path.

Paths are cut early and seeded with grass seed that is mowed like a lawn at maze time. “It provides a better surface if it rains,” he said.

The five mazes vary in size. A small one is designed for the 10,000 school kids from kindergarten to second grade who visit each fall. That maze is simple, with no path choices.

“They just go through and come out,” he said. That generates enough excitement for little kids without inciting fear or terror.

Another small maze, with some choices, is designed for older children. A third maze is “complicated enough that when my son cut it for me, he got lost.” The fourth is six acres, last year following a complicated Chicken Little design, cut with a riding lawn mower following a walker toting a backpack computer and following GPS coordinates.

The fifth maze is haunted. That means employees in costumes scare people as they move through a complicated pattern that includes blind alleys and dead ends. Waterman warns that a maze operated at night with the deliberate intent to create fear and terror in people who are lost can generate extreme behavior, especially among teenagers.

People want light. They want to fight back and sometimes attack the scarers. It is important nobody lights matches or lighters or has access to weapons.

Corn ears can be weapons.

Waterman reduced that threat by planting a special Rupp Seed hybrid that is male sterile. It produces cobs that are “light and fluffy” and contain no kernels.

Bill Bamka, the Rutgers University Extension agent in Burlington, N.J., said that the male sterile corn strategy, or even the late-planting strategy, may not work in New Jersey where the state gives tax breaks for agricultural crop production but not for land uses that aren’t considered farming.

Is planting corn too late to get a harvestable crop, or planting corn that produces no grain, likely to be an acceptable farm land use? He’s not sure.

But the farmers in Indiana don’t face that problem, and frankly, they’re quite willing to admit their agritainment ventures are commercial. They buy commercial insurance policies.

“Don’t try to harvest it,” said Waterman of corn that is planted too late to make grain or, if it does, is too wet to harvest.

Jeffrey Wilson, an agent for Indiana Farm Bureau Insurance, recommended that farmers who run corn mazes have insurance that covers business activities beyond farming. While some small endeavors, like roadside sweet corn stands, are covered under a farm insurance policy, beyond “the sweet corn exception” growers need a business endorsement that spells out the activities.

When these activities are significant, farmers may want to consider setting up limited liability companies that draw a line between farm and personal assets and other business activities.

And having insurance isn’t all that’s necessary. Risk avoidance is important. In case of an accident or event that incites a lawsuit, what a farmer has done is considered as reflecting his attitude toward the public.

“You owe it to your customers to provide safe conditions,” Wilson said.

That means filling holes and ruts, mowing early so there’s no corn stubble to trip over, providing employees who know what to do in the case of emergency and providing adequate supervision (perhaps even including watch towers).

In running his haunted maze, the Watermans assign some employees with emergency medical technician training. Wilson said such efforts “are the best defense in court suits charging negligence.”

Wilson also said that hold-harmless agreements are a good idea. While many believe such documents won’t do much good in a lawsuit, he said, “it shows you have educated people” and it demonstrates good intentions.

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