Barn Fires Best Prevented
Barn Fires Best Prevented
Barns that house horses and contents in volume, such as these at the Red Mile in Kentucky, can host a catastrophic fire without strict precautions. Worse, a tipped heater five barns down means your horses can be endangered. Fairs and other events also hold this risk. Photo by the author.

Barn Fires Best Prevented

by Joan Hoadley of AZ

Barn fires are devestating. A rabbitry owner had converted his garage to a rabbit barn, and early one morning found it in flames. A goat breeder lost 150 head, many of them babies, when a young kid knocked down a heat lamp. A barn of draft horses perished from heat buildup of a manure pile.

Thousands of horses lose their lives every year trapped in barns that people cannot get to. Insurance often doesn’t cover the entire cost. And insurance buys things but doesn’t replace that special animal lost forever. Champion Thoroughbreds like Favorite Trick and Saratoga Six lost their lives as well as 43 head of Thoroughbreds and Quarter horses, most just two year olds, killed in February 2006 in a fire at Eureka Downs in Eureka, Kansas.

Fire is a thief. It often happens hours from the time the last person leaves the barn – meaning it’s left smoldering for hours undetected. An Oregon riding academy housing 75 horses ravaged by fire undetected until the following morning when instead of feeding the barn was found in ashes with dead and dying horses in burned out stalls. Race tracks have had fires and many famous and not so famous horses have been victims to fire. It doesn’t care if the horse is a youngster with promise or an old champion or a much loved family member.

A fire that starts in a horse’s stall is severe enough that the horse has usually less than 30 seconds to be rescued before suffering fatal smoke inhalation burns. In less than 2 minutes a burning bed of straw generates more heat than a pool of gasoline. And with so much to burn – wood, bedding, hay – the fires spread quickly. Those things which don’t burn – plastic based buckets for example – melt. When the fire gets to the tackroom there’s blankets, grooming supplies, saddle oils and many aerosol cans which explode and send the fire even more rapidly raging through the barn. A heavily saddle-soaped old leather saddle will burn to ash in fifteen minutes, sending flames eight feet high in some tests.

If the fire isn’t noticed for 10 minutes – many horses will already be gone while others, sensing what is coming and unable to escape, cringe, terrified, in the corner of their stall.

Several years ago I had a new extension cord, a heavy one, plugged into a heat lamp securely over a rabbit nest box. My Anatolian shepherd began creating a fuss and when I went out to investigate there were sparks and flames coming from the connection of the cord. Next to a mobile home this could have been a devastating fire had I not been home or had a dog smart enough to sense the danger.

Take steps today to reduce the risk of fire. A report indicates summer fires are generally due to lightning or hay; winter fires to hay, electrical shorts or heaters. By one estimate more than 4,500 barn fires break out annually – most are preventable!! An online article by Carolyn Burch, “Fire Season in Horse Country – a Prevention Guide” – indicates that most horses that die come down to common ground reasons:

  • Hard to catch horses.
  • Absence of halters and leadropes or insufficient quantities of either.
  • People who are not around enough to notice the first signs of danger.
  • Lack of smoke detectors and/or fire sprinkler systems.
  • Highly flammable materials stored in and near barns and horse sheds, high brush.
  • Lack of trailer or trailers sufficient to remove horses.
  • Difficult to load horses.

Common sense says – a halter and lead for each horse, horses that are easy to catch, trailer access and horses eager to load and prevention will save most horses from ever being in a fire or increase his chances of surviving one. Remember in a crisis situation “you” may not be the one trying to halter the horse – he’ll be facing strangers trying to help him. Even babies should be trained to be caught as part of early training. Train horses so all can be caught quickly. Skittish horses should be stalled near the ends for faster evacuation. A halter and lead rope for each horse should be on the stall door.

Barn Fires Best Prevented
Housing in mild climates might be a windbreak and place to get out of the wet. Be sure to leave enough room for all animals without submissive ones being pinned inside or left outside. Photo by the author.

Keep a working phone in the barn, with written EXACT directions above it so that anyone can read off directions and direct emergency workers to the barn. In a crisis minutes count!! A five minute delay in looking for the barn entrance can mean the difference between getting horses out or not or, in some cases, saving the barn or not. Have the driveway clearly and distinctly marked. Have the 911 address obvious and clearly lit at night.

There are many things to do to prevent fires that can be done in a day of dedicated work.

Move manure piles away from the barn – convenience can be deadly. Composting manure piles generate a large amount of heat. Post NO SMOKING signs and mean it – no smoking in or near the barn.

If you have a dryer in the barn take the time to clean the vents regularly. If you need more plugin space get it rewired and eliminate the extension cords. Secure heat lamps better. All appliances used in the barn should be grounded. Any heater cords or heat tapes should be protected and all cords should be protected from animal mouths. Keep heat lamps for kids, pigs, etc SECURELY suspended. This means no twine string or frayed rope – chain and snaps, and a secure electrical box to plug in to. Keep these cords out of reach of mouths – I know of someone who lost a champion Saanen doe because she chewed in to a cord and was electrocuted. That was tragic but the bedding and about 30 feet away 20′ high stack of hay could have meant a disaster of major proportions.

Keep no more than a few days worth of hay in the barn where horses and equipment are. Have a place for the farrier that is solid floored with NO chance of a spark hitting bedding, hay or other flammable things.

Keep portable heaters to a minimum and turn them off when not in the barn. Do not use portable heaters unattended – those listed that will turn off when tipped over aren’t good enough – the unit will still be hot.

Oily rags, farm chemicals, paint, fertilizer and extra lumber needs a storage place away from the barn. Thread wire through conduit for extra protection. Keep operational fire extinguishers accessible in the barn. Keep dust and cobwebs to a minimum. Keep electrical boxes especially clean and maintained.

Motors – including for fans – should have moisture and dust proof switches and kept over 18 inches from any hay or bedding. Place electric fence units outside the barn – use UL listed units and place them in an enclosed weather-proof structure 10′ from buildings.

Modify your electrical system to allow the water pumps on while power to the rest of the buildings is off. Regularly inspect electrical boxes and wiring – this can’t be stressed enough!

Some fire departments will evaluate your premises with safety suggestions and attend for fire drills, which should be done to practice emergency evacuations. Have fire alarms, smoke alarms and a sprinkler system available. Move the electrical panels to the driest place possible. Have dust and moisture resistent covers over flourescent lights and sealed covers over light bulbs with a cage to prevent breakage.

Barn Fires Best Prevented
Feeding horses in an outdoor lot reduces hay kept inside, but can create other problems. Photo by the author, courtesy Bohemian Gypsy Cobs.

Have exit doors clearly marked. Keep aisles clear! Keep them raked/swept and keep materials clear so as to make evacuation possible if need be. Keep weeds and trash picked up and mowed. When new hay comes in make sure adequate ventilation is provided. Pay attention to hay baled too wet. Keep a long reinforcing rod near the hay pile – drive it down into the hay and leave it for a while. Pull it out and check it – if it’s too hot to touch deal with it now!! It CAN IGNITE.

Keep vehicles stored outside the building – hot tailpipes, motors, gasoline tanks all contribute to fires. Have properly installed and grounded lightning rods installed on buildings.

Have all your important papers – coggins sheets, pedigrees and other records – stored outside the barn office or have copies at another location.

A fire started by a heat lamp too close to hay at another barn killed several goats as well as several horses and destroyed a 200X100′ pole barn. When adding to the difficulty of lots of fuel to burn firefighters had to transport water to the scene – there was not a sufficient water source.

Look at your barn with new eyes. Don’t put off needed maintenance!! Tomorrow will be too late if your barn and animals burn tonight.