Fire: Any property owner’s worst nightmare. For horse owners and stable managers, barn fires can be devastating.
The National Fire Protection Agency (NFPA) reported almost 1,100 barn fires per year from 2002 to 2005. Those fires caused 2 civilian deaths, 10 civilian injuries, and nearly $32.4 million in property damage notes Jennifer Flynn of the NFPA.
Prevention is the best method to avoid a fire in your barn. After you read this article, spend an hour and do a walk-through around your facility. You’ll be surprised by all the hazards you will now see and all the changes you can make-easily and cheaply.
What Causes Barn Fires?
Open flames. Cigarette butts and lighters and are a no-brainer. But posting a “No Smoking” sign is not enough. “Lay down the law,” says Stacy Segal, Equine Protection Specialist with the Humane Society of the United States (www.hsus.org). “There seems to be an unwritten rule that it’s okay to smoke in some areas. The obvious rule should be that there is no smoking allowed anywhere in or near the barn. Period.”
Appliances and wiring. Heat lamps are the leading cause of barn fires, Jennifer Flynn says. They should never be left unattended and only used when absolutely necessary.
“At this time of year, I cannot stress enough how deadly portable heaters can be when used and left unattended in a barn,” says Laurie Loveman, fire prevention specialist and author of the “Fire Safety in Horse Barns” website at www.laurieloveman.com. “Portable heaters in the aisle way are accidents waiting to happen,” she adds.
Heating coils used to de-ice water buckets can be just as dangerous. If left unmonitored, the coils heat up enough that they can actually cause water to boil completely out of the bucket. Then the heated coil continues to work, even melting into or through the plastic bucket. Depending on what the bucket is touching, a fire can ignite.
Overloaded or damaged extension cords are also hazards. “Avoid plugging multiple items into one extension cord,” Laurie notes. “Limit the length of extension cords, and unplug all appliances every night.”
Ideally, all electrical wiring should be surrounded by metal or PVC conduit, which also protects wires from corrosion, birds, and mice. An annual check up with the local fire inspector can identify a problem before it sparks a flame. “Contact the fire department ahead of time,” Stacy Segal suggests. “Invite them out to your barn for a tour so they know where you are. They can also give you tips that will help make their job easier in the event of a fire.”
Lightning. The Lightning Protection Institute studied the death of 250 horses linked to lightning. The study found that 41% of the horses were not directly struck by lightning, but instead burned to death because the barn they were in was struck by lightning and caught fire. You can see how a well-installed lightning rod is crucial. It will lead a lightning strike into the ground and away from the barn, averting disaster.
Keep your barn clean. “Good housekeeping is the most cost-effective prevention strategy a barn owner has,” says Stacy. “Establish a cleaning protocol in your barn and make sure that everyone follows it.”
Keeping a clean barn includes knocking down cobwebs. You’ll also want to rake loose straw and hay from aisle ways and overhead drop bins. Remove flammable gases-like propane for a grill or welding gas-from your barn. In fact, you should never store anything that might ignite or be flammable even near your barn. This list should include engine oil or tractor fuel as well.
Hay and sawdust/wood shavings. If you must, store only dry, cured hay and sawdust in your barn. Damp hay and sawdust can both spontaneously combust. If you experience itchy eyes or notice a “sooty” smell, the pile may be smoldering and must be removed very carefully and immediately.
In a perfect situation, hay should be stored in a location away from the barn. In reality, however, many horse owners don’t have this luxury. If you must store hay in your barn, storing it on a level above your stalls is the next best choice. If a fire were to start, heat, smoke, and flames will rise up out of the building, providing extra evacuation time.
Reacting to Fire
Fire drill. Preparation is the best life-saving device you have. Work with your local fire department to outline an evacuation procedure that will take into account several different fire scenarios. Post schematics and written plans near all exits. Practice and discuss escape routes regularly with all barn users.
Call for help. This will be difficult to remember in the fear and panic of the moment, but always call the fire department before evacuating animals. “When you call the fire department, tell them there are live animals in the burning barn,” Stacy stresses, “Otherwise they may assume it’s only a storage facility.”
Keep tools handy. Hang halters and lead ropes at each stall door so they’re easy to locate. Equipment, tack, and stored items should be kept out of the aisles, allowing for a clear exit route.
A fire extinguisher can tackle small flames. Know what type of extinguishers you have and have them inspected annually. Purchase an extinguisher designed to work on fires caused by several types of sources so you don’t inadvertently fuel the fire if you need to use the extinguisher.
Documentation. While you may not want to face this horrible possibility, you must prepare for the worst-case scenario. Photograph and document each horse and piece of equipment/tack. Store information off site or at your insurance agent’s office.
Laurie Loveman emphasizes, “Some of the things we talk about in fire prevention are the ideal, but none of us have the ideal. Even if you build a barn from scratch, there will always be things you wish you had done differently when you finish. We’re only human and we make mistakes.” But, with attention to detail and a plan in place, you can reduce your chances of a stable fire.