Horse barn fire—it’s every horse owner’s worst nightmare, and it comes true too often. Fire happens in top-of-the-line new barns as well as creaky old ones. And once a horse barn fire starts, experts say, you have at best eight minutes to get horses out. After that, even if they escape, smoke inhalation may end their useful careers.
For all those reasons, prevention of horse barn fires is paramount. Yes, you need to make and practice an emergency plan in case a horse barn fire ever does happen. But even more, you need to scour your barn for fire risks, correct them, and keep them corrected.
To help you, we’ve consulted four experts, all experienced horsemen. Californian Tim Collins is a technical equine-rescue specialist with the Santa Barbara Humane Society and an adviser to Santa Barbara-based Equine Evac, which responds to fires, floods, and earthquakes. Ken Glatthar’s Lake Tahoe Security Services, Inc., based in Reno, Nevada, does fire investigations and is developing a special unit to work with large equine operations on preparedness. Besides his regular veterinary practice at North Carolina’s Southern Pines Equine Associates, Dr. Jim Hamilton serves on the Moore County Emergency Response Unit. And Lieutenant Chuck Younger of the nearby Southern Pines Fire and Rescue Department not only teaches horsemen about fire safety but teaches firefighters to work with horses. All four experts present emergency and fire-response talks and/or workshops to special-interest groups and the public.
First, get rid of those fire hazards. Store hay away from the barn. All our experts stress this point—because hay that’s been baled damp can build up internal heat and ignite all by itself.
If you must store hay in your barn, at least be sure to . . .
Store hay carefully. “Store the minimum you can,” says Chuck, “maybe five to ten bales, preferably at ground level, away from electrical lights.” (His own brother lost a new barn after a hay supplier carelessly stacked bales up to the ceiling—where one made contact with a fluorescent light.) Leave a gap between bales, advises Tim, to let moisture dissipate. And install a smoke detector or heat detector above the hay.
Check hay frequently. About a month after hay’s been delivered, Ken says, “break open a bale. If it’s very warm to your hand inside, it’s probably been put up too moist and is getting ready to combust. Check every bale; any that’s hot, move out of the barn.”
Make “No Smoking” the rule. Post signs outside and inside, and enforce them, with friends, family, and everyone else. “I’ve seen it too many times,” says Chuck. “The farrier comes to shoe your horses; he takes a break and lights up. You have to insist on no smoking—because one stupid mistake and that’s it.”
Protect wiring. Rodents love to gnaw on the coating around wire, so encase all wiring in metal conduit; secure the conduit to the structure so horses can’t pull it out. “Give your horses play toys,” says Ken, “so they leave the wiring alone.” And regularly check that the conduit’s in good shape, especially at junctions or turns.
Protect lights. Cover every bulb with a metal or plastic cage so a rearing horse can’t hit and break it.
Break up bedding. When you muck, urges Tim, move the bedding around to break up the compaction caused by your horse’s normal walking in his stall. Fire won’t spread as fast through loose bedding.
Get flammables out of the barn. Check every jar and bottle and spray in your tack room, wash stall, grooming tote, and tack trunk. If the label says “flammable” (and it will on lots of things, from liniment to linseed oil), store that item away from the barn if you possibly can; at least store it in a fire-resistant container (a metal box, for instance). For the same reason, park your gas-powered mower and gas can elsewhere. And remove half-empty cans of paint; gas can build up in them and ignite.
Clear out clutter—the odds and ends that accumulate in feed- and tack-room corners can provide fodder for a spreading fire. Clear your barn aisle, too; if you must store tack trunks and electric fans and your grooming vacuum there, at least put them all on one side of the aisle, providing a wider passage for getting horses out.
Sweep clean. Regularly sweep the aisle clear of loose hay and stray bedding and manure that could land on something hot—such as the muffler of a truck you’ve backed in to unload—and start smoldering.
Knock down cobwebs—they’re highly flammable.
Bust dust. Get rid of the dust that builds up in space heaters, on heat lamps, and around your water heater. Use an air compressor or leaf blower (when no horses are in the barn to breathe in the dust), or take equipment down to the gas station to be blown clean, especially before you put it away for the summer. Clean smoke detectors, too—dust can trigger false alarms.
Use caution with extension cords. “We’d prefer not to see them,” says Chuck, “but with horses you have extension cords. Use the heavy-duty industrial-rated kind—and as soon as you finish, unplug the cord and put it away.” Don’t hang extension cords on nails, he adds; abrasion eventually breaks down the rubber coating.
Ken warns, “Don’t lay an extension-cord connection right in front of your hay pile, where hay can land on it and dust can get in between the plug and receptacle.” If current arcs between the cords, the resulting fire “can smolder for hours, then break out in the middle of the night.” He adds, “What we call ‘electrical’ fires are not as prevalent as people think. Usually there’s another causal agent involved: something flammable in contact with the electricity.”
If you’re building a barn, all our experts agree, install enough outlets that you’ll never need an extension cord. The cost is relatively low; the safety return is high.
Handle heat with care. Your tractor, your truck, your clippers, your tack-room heater—anything with a motor or a heating element that warms up with use—needs to be kept away from hay, bedding, and flammables at all times, checked on carefully until it’s cooled, then put away safely.
Clear brush. Keep the ground around your barn clear of ornamental plantings and weeds; either could spread a fire. Trim back brush everywhere—including, says Tim, under low bushes; undergrowth can die back to become instant kindling. Clear fallen trees and branches.
Think you’ve made your barn hazard-free? Good. Now, says Tim, ask somebody unfamiliar with the place to walk through and help you spot the safety risks you’re too used to seeing. Even better, says Chuck Younger, have a member of your fire department do the walk with you.
Build for Safety
|Install a fire wall. Gypsum drywall is noncombustible. If you wall your tack room with it and the space heater in there catches fire, says Jim Hamilton, the fire won’t get through for about two hours, increasing the chances you’ll find it and put it out before it spreads.
If your barn roof is metal, vent it. People think of metal as fireproof, says Ken Glatthar, “but a metal roof contains heat. Unless there’s someplace for that heat to escape, it hits the metal roof, travels sideways, and hits a wall or a beam; if that wall or beam isn’t on fire yet, it will be.” The solution: Install turbines on the roof. (Costing $15 or $20 apiece at building-supply stores, they look like little domed turrets.) When hot air inside or a breeze outside hits the turbine’s blades, they spin, drawing that hot air up and out. “They make a little noise,” he says, “but the tradeoff in safety is worth it.”
Add exits if necessary. “If your barn is bigger than six stalls,” says Ken, “with a tack room in the middle, consider giving the tack room a door to the outside and making that and the door from the aisle wide enough for evacuation. Then if fire starts at one end of your barn, instead of having to run horses sixty feet from that end to the other end, you can get them out in thirty feet.” If a paddock’s only exit is into the barn, set a gate in its outside fence so you won’t have to take a horse back through the barn to evacuate him.
Install a farm-panel electrical box to put your well on a separate power circuit from your barn. The fire department will shut off power to the barn when it arrives, says Ken; with the farm-panel setup, you’ll still be able to operate your pump. Lacking this, at least have a portable sump pump (also called a ditch pump) on hand.