Around midday on January 19, 2012, breeder and trainer Julie Winkel looked out from her office at Maplewood Stables in Reno, Nevada, and saw a thick haze of smoke to the south. The wind was strong and the area had seen little rain or snow, so she was on alert for wildfires and realized that this one could blow her way. She immediately called her barn staff and told them to get ready to evacuate the 150-acre property.
“Within five minutes, we saw the fire coming over the hill,” Julie says, “and within half an hour my house had burned to the ground.” But Julie, her staff and her horses were safe. Thanks to good planning, quick action and support from the Reno horse community, 50 horses were evacuated from the property.
If fire breaks out at your horse’s barn, will he be so lucky? Barn fires spread so fast that there’s often not enough time to halter horses and lead them to safety. “Firefighters tell us that many times by the time they get to the fire, the barn is totally quiet because the animals are overcome by smoke,” says Rebecca Gimenez, who trains firefighters for emergencies involving horses. Planning and prevention are essential, fire and safety pros like Rebecca say, and in this article they explain how you can keep your horse from becoming a casualty statistic. Even if you board him at someone else’s barn, there are steps you can take.
There were more than 200 fires in U.S. and Canadian horse barns last year, according to the log kept by barn-fire expert Laurie Loveman on her website, www.firesafetyinbarns.com. Among them was the Memorial Day-weekend blaze that killed six horses and destroyed eventing trainer Boyd Martin’s barn at True Prospect Farm in Chester County, Pennsylvania. Boyd’s Olympic prospect Neville Bardos was trapped inside until Boyd and True Prospect owner Phillip Dutton dragged him, burned and choking, out of the burning barn. Four other horses also made it out.
The first months of 2012 brought more disastrous stable fires. Twenty-two horses died in January when flames destroyed an indoor arena with attached stabling at Heritage Acres in Lafayette Township, New Jersey. By the time the predawn fire was discovered, the metal doors were too hot to touch—rescue was impossible. In February a fire killed 27 Thoroughbreds—yearlings, 2-year-olds and stallions—at Campbell Stables in Grass Lake, Michigan. Firefighters arrived to find the barn engulfed in flames; the horses trapped inside had no chance.
Like most barn fires, these fires started accidentally. A typical horse barn is stuffed with everything a fire needs, including plenty of fuel (hay, bedding, wood timbers) and, often, materials such as gasoline and aerosol cans that act as accelerants, speeding the spread of flames. All it takes is a spark to set it off.
Electrical problems—faulty wiring or misuse of electrical equipment—are the most common cause, Laurie says. Lightning strikes, sparks or heat from machines and equipment and heat buildup in stored hay or straw can start a fire. So can careless acts like smoking in or near a barn. The wildfire that swept through Maplewood started accidentally when an elderly man living several miles to the south put hot fireplace ashes outside. Fanned by near-hurricane-force winds, it ripped across more than six square miles and destroyed 29 homes before firefighters brought it under control.
Once fire starts in a barn, it can spread incredibly fast. “Most barns are fully involved within seven to ten minutes from the initial outbreak of flames and on the ground within fifteen to twenty minutes,” says Rebecca. The True Prospect fire followed a common sequence. Chester County fire officials say it started accidentally at ground level, traveled up into the hayloft and from there quickly raced through the structure.
To give your horse a chance against a threat like that, his home should be designed, built and run in ways that minimize fire risk.
When Fire Breaks Out
|Keep your priorities—and your cool. “You may have just five to seven minutes from the time the fire is noticed to the time the barn is fully involved and it’s too hot and dangerous to enter,” Rebecca Gimenez says.
1. Tell people to leave the building and call the fire department at once. “Calling the fire department is the first thing you must do,” says Rebecca. “Let them get on the way to the location.”
2. Get horses out if you can do so without risking human lives. Making that call is tricky, Laurie Loveman says, because fires in barns move fast and grow geometrically—so a barn that appears one minute to be safe to enter could in the next minute be totally engulfed. If there is good to fair visibility in the barn and the fire is confined to one area, “I would say that you can take a chance on getting horses out if they are halter-broke and easy to lead and you have enough help to do it fast,” she says.
3. Use fire extinguishers and hoses only if you can do so safely. “If the fire is in the smolder stage or early flame, a fire extinguisher may be able to put it out—but it’s important to know how to use the extinguisher first,” Rebecca says. (Used improperly, a fire extinguisher can actually spread the flames.) Never fight a fire that is already large and spreading or if it could spread to block your escape route.
4. Know when to get out. “The second you find yourself coughing or your eyes watering to the point that you are almost incapacitated, leave the barn and stay out. If you are in trouble, chances are your horses have already died from smoke inhalation,” Laurie says. As fire spreads to the upper level of a barn the center aisle becomes a deadly trap, Rebecca adds: “The roof trusses burn through, and then the roof will fall on you.”
5. Step aside when the fire crew arrives and let the pros handle it. If you want to help, locate the fire crew’s incident commander and ask what you can do. Don’t try to be a hero. “Even properly protected firefighters know when it’s too late to save a life,” Laurie says.