National Fire Prevention Week: Fire Safety Tips For the Barn

It’s National Fire Prevention Week: if you haven’t assessed your barn’s fire protection and prevention or gone over your emergency plan recently, we have a few helpful tips!

Flickr/Jereme Rauckman/CC

Flickr/Jereme Rauckman/CC

National Fire Prevention Week was established by the National Fire Protection Association, or NFPA, coinciding each year with October 9. Back on this day in 1871, the tragic Great Chicago Fire burned over 2,000 acres and killed over 250 people — and it was believed to have started in a barn.

While safety and prevention may have come a long way since 1871, the hard truth remains that barns are full of fuel (hay, bedding, chemicals and often the barn itself) and hundreds of stable fires occur each year, from amateur-owner farmsteads to Olympic-level training facilities. Many of these fires are preventable with care and attention — we’ve compiled some tips and facts from a variety of sources so you can review your own barn’s fire safety plan.

Common causes of barn fires:
  • Smoking
  • Electrical wiring/appliances
  • Lightning
  • Poorly-curing hay

Enforce a smoking ban at the barn. Post “no smoking” signs or placards around the facility and premises and enforce the ban verbally among owners, staff, boarders, students and visitors. This ban should cover the entire property, not just the barn itself. Of note is the fact that a failure to enforce this rule may invalidate insurance policy.

Store flammable materials in a separate building when possible, or separate them from horses with a firewall. This includes bedding and hay, but also equipment such as tractors and other machinery as well as fuels and chemicals.

Check hay regularly. Improperly cured hay can spontaneously combust thanks to and moisture-loving bacteria that both loves a warm environment and gives off heat in its life cycle. If a bale’s core temperature is greater than 150 degrees Fahrenheit, it should be removed from the barn immediately; if it’s higher than 175 degrees, call the fire department first as a sudden rush of oxygen could trigger combustion. (Read: Fire at UC Davis Hay Barn Reminder to Check Hay for more information about harvesting, curing and storing hay)

Keep the barn clean. Keeping aisles free of loose hay and dust, which can be fuel for flames, as well as highly-flammable cobwebs. Keeping a tidy barn can also make it easier for staff or emergency personnel to reach a horse’s stall and evacuate it should the worst happen.

Be cautious with electrical wiring and appliances. Check wiring frequently for signs of wear, bare wires and rodent damage, and have old wiring repaired and new wiring installed by a professional. All appliances should be UL-listed and grounded, and disconnected when not in use. Use electrical appliances away from fuel sources, including bedding and hay.

Building a better barn:

There’s no such thing as a truly fireproof barn, but if you’re able to design a new structure for your property, or make some upgrades to your current structure or property, there are plenty of ways to reduce the risk of fire or increase the likelihood that horses can escape:

  • Build with fire-safe materials, including cinderblock or masonry walls, a tile or metal roof and fire retardant paint
  • Install exterior doors on horse stalls so that horses have a direct, individual exit out of the barn. Constructing a fenced lane from the barn to a paddock or pasture will keep horses enclosed and far away from the burning barn.
  • If building or installing exterior doors is impossible, make sure the barn has multiple exits
  • Ensure that the driveway is accessible by firetrucks and emergency vehicles. Consider multiple driveways or points of access for the farm and barn.
  • Install a sprinkler system. This is the only proven way to suppress flames until the arrival of emergency personnel.
  • Have a professional install a lightning rod system
  • Install smoke and heat detectors, and wire those detectors to an external siren or directly to the fire and police departments. Cheap household smoke detectors often won’t work in a barn due to dust.
  • Maintain fire extinguishers within 40 feet of any point in the barn, and keep them charged, maintained and location marked
Emergency plan:

Develop a fire emergency plan that fits your facility: speak with your local fire department and walk through your barn with a fire crew. The crew may be able to spot potential problems and help you address them before they arise, as well as familiarize themselves with your layout. Some fire departments may even hold a training session at your barn to learn more about handling horses — it never hurts to ask.

Do your homework when you form your emergency plan: to where will horses be evacuated? Does every horse have a halter and lead rope at his stall? You may need to prioritize which horses are rescued first. Post your emergency plan and make sure any staff and family members are well-schooled in what to do.

  • Every fire emergency plan should start with calling the fire department before anything else so the emergency crew is on its way as soon as possible.
  • Get horses out of the structure without risking human lives: this may be a hard call to make, both because barn fires can grow extremely fast and engulf the entire structure and because it’s hard to stand by and watch if there are horses trapped inside. Generally, if visibility is good and you know you have enough help to remove horses quickly, a situation may be considered safe enough to attempt evacuation.
  • Know when to leave. If you’re coughing or having trouble breathing, the harsh reality is that the horses may already have died from smoke inhalation. If fire is traveling up the walls of a barn, there is a big danger of the roof collapsing.
  • When the fire crew arrives, stand aside and let them do their job. The crew member in charge will let you know if you can be of assistance and will also know best when it’s too dangerous to risk human lives.

While no horse owner wants to think about the worst-case scenario of a barn fire, the truth is that most barn fires are preventable with attention to details and careful planning. Take a look at your barn now and keep your horses and property safe.

Consulted sources for further reading:

National Fire Protection Association

[Practical Horseman: Barn Fire!]

[University of Minnesota Extension: Barn fire safety]

[Pennsylvania Equestrian: Barn Safety Expert Offers Fire Prevention Tips]

[The Horse: Barn Fire Prevention]

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