Barn fires rank high on the list of every horse person’s biggest nightmares. The thought of our horses trapped in an inferno creates terrifying, stomach-churning dread.
Barns are tinderboxes of flammable material, from hay and straw to blankets and bedding. Motorized equipment is parked in the breezeway. The electrical system is often a tangle of residential-grade extension cords running from an aged panel box.
It doesn’t take much to ignite a barn fire and it spreads with mind-numbing speed. After 30 seconds hand-held extinguishers can’t contain it. A barn is fully involved in 10 minutes and burns to the ground in 20.
Contact your local fire department and invite them to inspect your barn and property. Make sure the entrance to your property is large enough for fire equipment and that the driveway to the barn is clearly visible from the road. Many farms have more than one entrance and going down the wrong lane costs valuable time.
The leading causes of barn fires are electrical malfunctions or misuse, smoking, spontaneous combustion of hay, and lightning strikes. Except for lightning, the dangers can be greatly reduced if not eliminated.
Fifty percent of barn fires are electrical in origin. Often the wiring and outlets are worn, corroded, and overloaded. Wasps build nests in circuit boxes and mice nibble the wiring. Extension cords loop around the supports and dust covers the outlets.
Have a licensed electrician inspect your barn and outbuildings. Place the electrical panel box in an easily accessible spot and have a master cutoff switch outside the barn. Use the proper wattage for all lights. Cover outlets with a dust\weather shield. Mount hand-held ABC fire extinguishers at each entrance to the barn. These are designed for electrical fires. Check them annually to make sure they are charged. Do not use water on an electrical fire. Water conducts electricity and you can be shocked or electrocuted.
The smell of something melting, outlets that are hot to the touch, and flickering lights are all warning signs that the power should be cut off immediately and an electrician called.
Faulty electrical appliances are responsible for many fires. The most frequent culprit is a box fan used to cool the stalls. Often, they run 24/7 in hot weather, but these fans are designed for residential, not heavy industrial, use. Add into the equation that the motors are usually covered with dust, and the likelihood of overheating increases. To safely cool your barn, buy commercial and industrial fans. Many of them shut off automatically if they overheat.
Winter brings another set of dangers in the form of heaters. Under no circumstance should you leave any type of heater unattended. Space heaters, heat lamps, and dairy barn heaters are responsible for most winter barn fires. Usually, the heaters are placed too close to something flammable. “Coil” heaters are particularly dangerous because the coils are so hot that anything that touches them ignites immediately and they stay hot long after they are turned off. “Radiator” and “ceramic” heaters are safer options. They have automatic cutoffs if they tip over or overheat. Immersion heaters for water buckets grow incredibly hot. If you are distracted and forget about them, they can boil away the water in the bucket and continue to generate heat and possibly ignite things around it.
Of all the threats that cause fires, this is the easiest to avoid. Simply prohibit smoking on the property. Ban cigarettes, pipes, cigars, joints, and e-cigarettes. That includes inside and outside the barn, outbuildings, fields and paddocks, and parking areas. A stray ember from a tossed cigarette can ignite trash, brush, and weeds.
There’s a great feeling of satisfaction and security in seeing a hayloft filled with neatly stacked bales of hay. There is also a danger because under the right conditions, hay can ignite without ever coming near an open flame.
“Spontaneous combustion” happens when the internal temperature of a bale of hay becomes hot enough to burn. This happens when the hay was not completely dry before it was baled. If the bales are packed so tightly that air cannot circulate around them, the risk increases. This usually happens within six weeks after the hay is baled. Warning signs are steam rising from the bales, condensation or mold on the eaves of the barn, and the smell of caramel or tobacco. If this happens, immediately evacuate the barn, and call the fire department.
This is the one threat that cannot be prevented. Nine out of ten barns struck by lightning are totaled, usually burning to the ground within minutes. Lightning rods do not reduce the odds of your barn being struck, but they direct the energy into the ground and away from the building. Many insurance companies offer discounts for installing a lightning rod.
Lightning is attracted to metal objects like power lines, metal roofs, automatic waterers, and pump handles. It also strikes tall and isolated objects like run-in sheds and solitary trees. It is not attracted to water on its own, but it travels through wet ground. That’s why horses standing in a field are killed even though a lightning bolt didn’t actually hit them.
Lightning can strike as far as 10 miles from the storm that generates it. Take cover as soon as you hear thunder and stay inside for 30 minutes after you hear the last rumble.
Fire suppression systems can put out a fire or at least slow its progress. They are expensive and require a reliable water source. Smoke, heat, and flame detectors are connected to alarms both at the farm and often to the fire department. As with lightning rods, insurance companies often offer sizeable discounts for installing these.
Speaking of insurance, make life easier for yourself and your insurance company if the worst happens. Spend an hour or so and take photos of everything in the barn, tack, feed, equipment, cleaning supplies, halters, lead ropes, first aid supplies, horse treats, supplements, clothing – everything. A visual record is invaluable in making a claim and getting a fair settlement.
Go to the Riders of a Certain Age Pinterest for a checklist of barn fire prevention tips.
University of Guelph in Canada has a fantastic equine studies program, which includes a lot of non-credit online courses, including barn safety. Well worth checking out.
Protectowire Fire Systems makes a heat-sensing wire. It’s about the thickness of electric fence wiring. It triggers an alarm when it senses heat, before the fire starts.