Barn Fire!

A barn fire is a tragedy. At a minimum, you’re going to lose the barn, as they generally burn quickly. Worse, you may lose one or more horses, pets or even humans. Prevention is key. You know that. However, we asked fire-expert Laurie Loveman to remind us what steps to take to minimize the likelihood of a barn fire.

What is the main hazard for fire in a barn’

Portable heaters and poor housekeeping. Every winter, barn-fire reports come in where portable heaters, heat lamps or heat tapes were either the actual or possible cause of the fires. In January 2007, [a reported] 5,056 animals perished in fires, most of which were preventable. Those that died: 15 horses, 190 cattle, 14 goats, 5 rabbits, 4,500 chickens, 20 dogs and cats, 10 sheep, 2 ducks, and 300 hogs. That is a tragic economic and emotional loss.

In addition to the extreme danger posed by portable heaters themselves, if the heater is located near straw, and barn aisles are littered with hay and straw, or cobwebs have not been swept from corners and posts, the fire will spread to the entire barn in seconds — too fast for help to be summoned.

How should fire drills be conducted in horse barns’

Fire drills in barns are just as important as fire drills in schools, homes and office buildings. Fire drills for a barn give people an opportunity to see what works regarding evacuation and what doesn’t, and if done in conjunction with the local fire department, all responders to an emergency will have had a chance to walk through the barn and, in the case of firefighters, will learn how to at least halter and lead a horse out. Fire drills should be held at least twice a year and more often if there are many people in and out of the barn at different times.

Fire drills should be done in both daylight and darkness, with no lights turned on, and should entail leading every horse out of the barn and to an assigned paddock or pasture or to another barn not endangered by the barn on fire. Evacuation plans have to be customized to each barn and property layout.

What is the most common mistake with regard to fire safety’

Open flames are still one of the biggest problems in barns, although careless disposal of matches or cigarettes is not as big a problem as it was in the past, mainly because kids don’t feel they have to sneak off to the barn to have a smoke.

My main concern is the parking or storage of gasoline or diesel-fueled equipment in the same barn as animals are housed. Unless there is a fire-rated wall between the two areas, the entire barn is at risk from fires caused by fuel fumes and hay or other flammable items coming into contact with hot exhaust systems from recently operated trucks, farm tractors, garden tractors, or motorcycles.

What is the best way to store hay to avoid a fire hazard’

If at all possible, hay should be stored in a separate building or under tarps at least 100 feet from the barn. Late spring and early summer is the peak time for fires caused by spontaneous combustion of hay that has not been fully cured before being stacked.

If hay must be stored in the same barn as animals, it should be frequently checked for temperature changes indicating heating is occurring within the hay stack (and within individual bales). If a rise in temperature is noticed, call the fire department and evacuate all occupants until the hay stack has been opened.

How can someone planning a new barn plan for fire safety’

The nice thing about having the opportunity to build a new barn is that you have time to do some research on what will work best for you and still fit within your budget.

I, personally, would not consider building a barn without installing a sprinkler system in addition to an alerting system tied into a central monitoring station. Outside of cost, the main objection I hear to installing sprinkler systems is the lack of a municipal water supply.

However, two 1000-gallon holding tanks (such as used for septic systems) can hold 2000 gallons of water that can be pumped into the sprinkler system, or the construction of a farm pond will also provide an adequate water supply.

Fire departments often say they used so many thousands of gallons on a barn before the fire was extinguished, but they are talking about putting water on an already out-of-control blaze. A sprinkler system stops a fire before it can cause much damage, and that alone keeps toxic smoke to a level low enough (or to zero) so that no life is threatened. In structures where sprinkler systems are activated in a fire, people and animals do not die.

So, there are many variations in constructing new barns, and that’s the fun of planning, but if the best way to save lives is not included, nothing else matters too much.

The same goes for retro-fitting a barn. As for cost, if the system costs, for example, $12,000 to install and it will protect the life of a stallion worth upwards of $50,000, isn’t that worth the peace of mind, not to mention the economic impact’

Everyone who knows me knows that I am a strong proponent of sprinkler systems in any structure that houses oxygen-breathing life forms. There are two main types of systems — the wet system, which has water in the pipes all the time and is installed in heated structures or in non-heated structures where the temperature does not get down to freezing.

In other locations, subject to freezing, a dry system is installed. In this case, water is held in a freeze-protected cistern or underground water pipes (if there is a municipal water supply) by pressurized gas until such time as a fire causes the activation of the sprinkler head closest to the fire. Then, the gas is released, followed immediately by the water flow. Systems should be installed by certified sprinkler-system installers and must be designed for the structure they will be protecting.

How can barn owners protect their barns from lightning’

Lightning protection is critical for barns and, like sprinkler systems, should be installed by a certified lightning-protection installer. If any single part of the system, from rooftop to in-ground, is not done correctly the entire system can fail and the barn and its occupants will be lost within minutes. There are several types of systems available, but it will take a professional to design a system for individual barns.

What kind of smoke/heat detection devices work best in barns’

Unfortunately, residential and commercial type smoke detectors do not work well in barns, because dust soon clogs the mechanism, rendering it inoperable unless it is cleaned frequently.

Do not despair, however, if you really feel smoke detectors in your barn will provide you with peace of mind. Optical smoke detectors are available that are designed to operate in dusty areas. These detectors must be professionally installed since the location of detectors within the building is specifically designed for the structure.

Heat detectors can be used in conjunction with smoke detectors, and their placement in your barn should also be determined by a certified installer. 

Heat detectors are effective only in closed spaces such as your tack room, feed room, or other utility rooms. If a heat detector is triggered in open areas, such as the stalls, it is usually too late.

There are two types of heat detectors: rate-of-rise and fixed-temperature. The rate-of-rise detector alarm is activated when the air surrounding the detector rises several degrees in a very short period of time, usually 10?° Fahrenheit within 60 seconds.

Fixed-temperature heat detectors are designed to activate at a preset temperature, which can range from 135?° F to 190?° F. The setting will be determined depending upon the location of the heat detector.

Costs may reach several thousand dollars for some types of detection systems, but if you can afford the expense, professionally installed smoke and heat detectors are definitely a worthwhile investment.

I can’t stress enough the importance of having any detection or alerting system installed by a professional. Also, without an attendant in the barn, the alerting signal from smoke and heat detectors will not be heard unless there is also an exterior alarm or the signal is picked up through an intercom system and there is someone in the residence to hear it and respond. The siren or bell should be loud enough to be heard from some distance.

If the alerting of helpers is done by someone in the barn, he or she must have access to a manually operated farm bell or siren outside the barn. In some areas, such as multi-barn facilities or racetrack barns, a flashing red light or a strobe light activated by the alerting system is mounted on the roof to attract attention and indicate which building has had an alarm activated.

An intercom system can be helpful when you’re at home. If you are unaccustomed to continuous use of an intercom, a few days of training will teach your ears to sift out the usual from the unusual and you will no longer hear the bumping of salt blocks in feed tubs or similar normal sounds. What you will hear is anything else — a horse in difficulty, intruders, frightened neighs.

An intercom system doesn’t have to be elaborate or expensive. It’s frightening to consider that a fire might start when no one is home or near the barn, so an alerting system tied through phone lines to a central monitoring station can bring great peace of mind. The fire department will be notified immediately, even if you are unavailable.

The Yellow Pages of your telephone directory lists under the heading “Fire Alarm Systems” firms who install alerting devices.