A barn’s worst enemy

by Sally Colby
Hay combustion, faulty wiring and box fans — all factors that contribute to barn fires.
Dr. Rebecca Gimenez, co-founder and instructor for Technical Large Animal Emergency Rescue (TLAER), says the NFPA (National Fire Protection Association) has done a lot of research on residential homes and agricultural fires, and found that electrical is the number one cause of fires. Gimenez added that many electrical items in horse barns, including washers, dryers and infrared heaters, draw a lot of current, and there’s potential for trouble if the electrical system is outdated and not the correct size for the load. One common electrical item in the barn is stall fans, and Gimenez says it’s critical to use the right kind. Fans should be rated UL 507, which means the housing is closed.
Barn fires are also caused by careless smoking, lightning and improperly cured hay. Hay should come from a reputable hay dealer who moisture tests in the field prior to baling. Ideally, hay storage is completely separate from the horse housing area. Because shavings can add significant fuel to a fire, they should also be stored separately. Gimenez says nothing is truly fireproof, and barn owners should limit the amount of combustibles present and allow no flammable materials in the barn.
In her role on technical committee for the NFPA, Gimenez makes recommendations to the standard. She says most barn fires are preventable, but occur because barn owners don’t understand how fire starts.
A good fire prevention initiative is creating a plan with the local fire department. “There’s nothing like having your local fire department walk through your facility,” said Gimenez, adding that she does this as a member of her local fire department. “They now know what the facility looks like and can make suggestions. There’s no place I’m aware of that’s going to bill you or give you a list of things you’ve done (wrong).”
Gimenez says many barns have cheap, five-pound fire extinguishers, which have about nine seconds worth of material in them. To demonstrate to Pony Club members the ineffectiveness of small extinguishers, Gimenez takes a hay bale to a paved parking lot and lights it up, and after the bale is on fire and the strings have burned off, she hands the youth a fire extinguisher. “They blow the whole nine seconds of chemical on it, the bale smolders, the wind picks up and it starts to burn again,” she said. “We hand another five-pound extinguisher to them, and they try again.” Although it appears that the fire is out and the bale is covered in white, the wind may pick up and the fire reignites.
With this in mind, Gimenez recommends a 10-pound extinguisher at the very least, while large barns with more than a few horses should consider an industrial fire extinguisher along with training on how to use it effectively. She says many people have never used a fire extinguisher, and if used improperly, the contents are wasted.
“An ABC fire extinguisher is very good for barns,” said Gimenez, “but you may also consider investing in some water fire extinguishers to be able to wet the material. Those can be refilled much cheaper than refilling a heavy-duty ABC chemical fire extinguisher.”
Although some barn owners have a fire escape plan in place, many find out too late they should have had one. Some barn owners’ plan is a run-out plan, or simply releasing horses. “Open stall doors, chase the horses to the pasture, or catch each horse individually and put them in a paddock and close the gate,” said Gimenez. “When you bring the next horse, you have to drive the other horses out of the way and close the gate or they will go back to the barn.”
Gimenez suggested that horse owners who intend to use this plan should practice taking horses out of stalls, removing them from the barn one at a time and placing them in a paddock, closing the gate and going back for the next one. “Set a timer, run down the barn aisle and catch each horse one by one, run back and put them in the paddock, close the gate and come back for another,” she said. “See how long it takes two people to evacuate the barn. It’ll scare you to death.”
Horses should know how to load in a trailer, but not just on a calm, sunny day. Practice loading horses at night, in an unfamiliar trailer and under stressful conditions for a more accurate view of how they’ll react. In the event of fire, remove any synthetic items from the horse including nylon halters, fly masks and fly sheets. Flying sparks can easily melt such items and cause grave injury to a horse.
Although stall doors to the outside add cost to the barn and aren’t always practical, they may pay off in helping move horses out of danger more quickly. Gimenez says opening an outside stall door to move a horse to an outdoor paddock is faster and safer than running up and down the aisle collecting horses and risking exposure to heat, smoke and potential building collapse.
If a tractor is stored in or adjacent to the barn, Gimenez says there should be a firewall between the tractor storage area and the stall area. “Firewalls are usually rated,” she said. “Hour long, two hour long, four hour long – that could be a concrete block or gypsum board that’s rated for one hour.” Gimenez says in areas where taxes are based on square footage, people try to cram as much into one area as possible, but any time a tractor with fuel is in the same place as horses, fire risk rises.
Some horses are kept in old barns, which Gimenez says can be retrofitted for safety. She suggests bringing in the local fire department and having them walk around to see what should be done. They might recommend trimming trees to allow access for fire trucks, or suggest adding gravel to a lane because it’s difficult and risky to take a large, heavy truck down a muddy lane. They’ll also notice whether the reflective address sign is near the road and easy to see.
Gimenez says radiant heat can travel quite a distance, and can cause a wooden fence to burn or a metal fence to melt. “Anything that could possibly burn, such as your fence, if it’s too close to the barn that’s burning, could burn,” she said, adding that she’s aware of several instances of that happening. “They got the horses out, put them in a fence, the fence burned and the horses got loose and either ran down the aisle toward the road or back into the burning barn.”
Wood, tractors, hay and straw are referred to by firefighters as “fuel loading.” “They consider hay to be just as flammable as gasoline,” said Gimenez. “If you think about it like a firefighter looks at it, it may change your opinion of what you want to do.”

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