by Tamara Scully
Whether you own a large equestrian facility or a few draft horses, knowing how to prevent barn fires, protect your animals from wildfires and safely evacuate from any fire threat are imperative.
Barn fire risks
According to data from the National Fire Protection Association, barn fires are most common during colder months, and more fires occur in states subject to colder temperatures, with higher incidents of fire in those surrounding the Great Lakes and in New England. Heating equipment, including heat lamps and space heaters, followed by lighting and electrical equipment, were the most prevalent sources of barn fires. Lightning is a concern too.
According to Penn State Extension, other risk factors for barn fires during cold winter months include increased amounts of stored feed. Hay, which is highly flammable and can combust without any outside ignition source, elevates the fire risk. The repair, maintenance and storage of farm equipment in livestock barns is also a risk factor. Fuel spills and heat from engines can trigger or exacerbate fires. Electricity use is higher during the winter months, providing more opportunity for wiring to fail. Careless smoking is another primary cause of barn fires.
Other sources of ignition include broken glass; matches and cigarettes; sparks from welding equipment; batteries; chemicals which ignite when exposed to moisture or another chemical; and any electrical appliances, including electric fences near the barn. It is recommended that any appliances are UL-listed. Heated elements, such as for water troughs, need to be protected from animal (including rodent) chewing. Space heaters cannot be used in livestock stalls and should have tip-over shutoff devices when used in tack rooms or other areas. Wires placed in conduit pipes, outlets and switch boxes with spring-loaded covers and ground fault receptacles are highly recommended.
Design and upkeep
Penn State Extension recommends building materials be rated low for smoke development, low for flame spread potential and rated high for fire resistance. Access to the barn should be wide enough and navigable for firefighting and rescue equipment. Building envelopes should be at least 50 feet apart, both to prevent the spread of fire and allow access for emergency vehicles.
Lightning rod systems will capture any lightning strikes and transmit the energy into the ground, thus preventing fire. They should be standard on any structure, new or old, are inexpensive and need to be installed by a professional. Pipes, telephone wires and water and electrical systems should also be grounded.
A pond easily accessible to the barn to provide water in case of fire, as well as hydrants around the barn, is recommended. A sprinkler system, properly designed and installed, can stop fire in the area in which it originated without damaging the rest of the barn.
Fire detection systems, including smoke alarms, thermal detectors and flame detectors, are critical. Having the alarms directly signal the fire department can save time and lives, both animal and human. Fire extinguishers, properly labeled and maintained, should be readily visible and accessible throughout the barn for easy access. Common sense approaches, such as keeping flammable materials outside and away from the barn and storing oily rags in closed metal containers, not allowing smoking in or near the barn and keeping aisles free of any clutter can prevent fires or reduce damage should a fire occur.
Barn designs allowing for two readily accessible exits for each stall are recommended. Having properly designed and installed fire curtains or partitions which are fire resistant, and which divide the barn into smaller sections no more than 150 feet long, can provide fire retention while retaining adequate ventilation and airflow.
Maintenance and inspection of all systems, including daily barn cleaning to keep dust, cobwebs and debris at bay, are fire prevention tasks. Annual examination and replacement of barn wiring, and routine inspection and cleaning of dust and debris from around electrical outlets and boxes and fans, are good ways to minimize fire hazards. Extension cords should be examined before use and only used temporarily. Engines should not be refueled inside a building, particularly when the engine is hot. Light bulbs can start fires, and keeping the area around bulbs free from dust and dirt, as well as utilizing explosion-proof coverings, can reduce fire risks. Cobwebs and hay particles are easily ignitable and all barn areas should be carefully swept daily.
Established protocols for evacuation during a wildfire event are necessary for livestock. The NFPA suggests that an evacuation kit for each horse be prepared, including ownership papers, health records, a photo, medications and more. Tack, food and water, enough for several days, should be stored in airtight containers. A first aid kit and cleaning supplies are also needed when evacuating. Each horse should be identified by cutting its hair to “brand” it with your name and number, or do so using a livestock crayon. An ID tag can be braided into the mane or attached to a neck band. See the list of things to prepare at nfpa.org.
If the horses can’t be evacuated by trailer and must be let free, do not let them go with nylon ropes attached, as these can melt into skin. Close and latch all gates and doorways behind them so they do not return to the paddock or barn.
Trailer evacuation should be practiced. Having several routes of escape that can accommodate the trailer is best.
Animal fire injuries
Horse blankets, straw, hay and grain dust are all highly flammable. Straw quickly heats to a burning temperature of 300º and burns as readily as gasoline. For horses exposed to a fire in their stall, time is of the essence.
Even a four-foot diameter stall fire will injure the horse; a fire that reaches six feet in diameter will sear the horse’s lungs. There is an extremely brief time span, a mere 30 seconds, within which a horse needs to be removed from a burning stall to avoid injury. Within three minutes of ignition, a stall fire will reach a 10-foot diameter and cause death to the stall occupant.
Smoke inhalation can cause serious and fatal injury or long-term concerns. It causes lung inflammation and edema, and can lead to pneumonia and asthma. Signs of smoke inhalation include a respiratory rate of greater than 30 breaths per minute, increased abdominal effort when breathing, wheezing or nostril flaring, nasal discharge and coughing. Lethargy and fever are also common.
Even if wildfires are not directly threatening the farm, the air quality can be significantly compromised, leading to eye irritation and damage from smoke inhalation. If smoke is present, do not exercise horses.
While even the best safety plan can’t prevent all fires, taking the time and effort to put fire safety standards in place is relatively simple step. The devastating effects of not doing so aren’t worth the risk.
A downloadable barn fire safety checklist poster is available on www.nfpa.org.