Fire is any property owner’s worst nightmare. With hot summer days in the forecast the potential for a fire can come from lighting strikes, the storage of uncured hay and other basic housekeeping practices.
The National Fire Protection Agency (NFPA) reported 1,090 structure fires year from 2002-2005, explained Jennifer Flynn with the NFPA. Barn fires are not small and they spread rapidly. Nearly two-thirds of all barn fires engulf the entire structure, Flynn said. Prevention is the best method to avoiding a fire in your barn.
What Causes Barn Fires?
Appliances & Wiring
This time of year, stable owners strive to keep their horses cool with regular house fans spread throughout the barn.
Ideally, all electrical wiring should be surrounded by metal or PVC conduit. Conduit protects wires from corrosion, birds and mice. An annual inspection with the local fire inspector can identify a problem before it sparks a flame.
Overloaded or damaged extension cords are also hazardous. “Avoid plugging clippers, heat coils, radios, etc into one extension cord,” Loveman noted, “limit the length of extension cords and unplug all appliances every night.
The Lighting Protection Institute studied the death of 250 horses linked to lighting. The study found that 41% of the horses were not directly struck by lighting. Instead they burned to death because the stable caught was struck by lighting and caught fire.
A well installed lightning rod is the best protection. They lead lighting to the ground and away from the barn.
“Good housekeeping is the most cost effective prevention strategy a barn owner has,” said Segal, “establish a protocol in your barn so that everyone follows it.”
Keep a clean barn. Knock down cobwebs. Rake loose straw and hay from aisle ways and overhead drop bins. Remove flammable gases like propane for a grill or welding gas. Never store engine oil or tractor fuel inside the stable.
Hay and Sawdust/Wood shavings
Store only dry, cured hay and sawdust. Damp hay or sawdust can spontaneously combust. If you experience itchy eyes or notice a “sooty” smell the pile may be smoldering.
In a perfect situation hay should be stored in a barn away from the stable area. In reality, many horse owners do not have this luxury. Storing hay above the stall area 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.
Lighters and cigarette butts are a no brainer. Posting a “No Smoking” sign is not enough. “Lay down the law,” said Stacy Segal, Equine Protection Specialist with the Humane Society of the United States. “There seems to be an unwritten rule that it’s ok to smoke in your own barn but not someone else’s or that it is ok in the arena, but not in the aisle way,” she said. “It should be no smoking anywhere in the barn period.”
Reacting to fire
Preparation is the best life saving device you will have. Outline an evacuation procedure and post it near the exits. Practice and discuss escape routes regularly with all barn users.
“Contact the fire department ahead of time,” Segal suggested, “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.”
Always call the fire department BEFORE evacuating animals. “When you call the fire department tell them there are live animals in the burning barn,” Segal stressed, “otherwise they may only assume it is a storage facility.”
Store halters and lead ropes on each stall so they are easy to locate. Equipment, debris and stored items should be kept out of the aisles allowing for a clear path to the exits.
A fire extinguisher can tackle small flames. Know what type of extinguisher you have and have inspected annually. Purchase an extinguisher designed for several types of fires so you do not fuel the fire should you need to use one.
Prepare for the worst case scenario. Photograph and document each horse and piece of equipment/tack. Store a copy off site or at the insurance agent’s office.
Loveman emphasized, “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 when you finish there will always be things you wish you had done differently,” she said, “we’re only human and we make mistakes.” With attention to detail and a plan, you can reduce your chances of a stable fire.