Preventing Barn Fires - A Quick Guide
A barn fire is a horse owner's worst nightmare, often resulting in the deaths of horses, barn pets and even, sometimes, humans. Every year there are at least a few high profile cases, often involving large training establishments, where a barn burns to the ground...often with horses still inside.
Fire prevention is an important concern for anyone who keeps horses, whether they have fifty horses in a huge aisle barn or two or three animals at home.
Here are some tips for preventing fires and also for reducing the chance of your horses being trapped inside.
Put Out That Cigarette
Plain and simple, don't smoke in or near any barn or stable. If the public has access to your stable, place no smoking signs prominently. Do not allow spectators to smoke in the indoor arena, whether or not it is connected to the barn.
A good rule of thumb is not to allow smoking within fifty yards of the building. Make sure to place trash receptacles where people can dump their butts a safe distance from the barn.
Large barns should have sprinkler systems installed. Talk to your insurance company - they may offer a discount on premiums for having one. Some sprinkler systems also double as misters for the indoor arena - in a hot climate, a mister can be a godsend for your comfort and that of your horse.
Systems should be tested regularly and maintained correctly.
Have sufficient fire extinguishers for the size of the building. These extinguishers should be ABC extinguishers (rated to deal with wood, liquid and electrical fires) with at least ten pounds force. There should be one at each entrance to the barn, one in the tack room and one in the feed room. Fire extinguishers also do no good if nobody can find them...if there is a fire extinguisher in a room place a sign on the door stating that.
If you have separate hay and manure storage facilities, those should also have separate fire extinguishers. Yes, this can get expensive, but it is worth it. Fire extinguishers should be properly mounted to the wall so as to ensure they stay right where they are needed. In very large barns, place a fire extinguisher every fifty feet.
A discharged extinguisher should be replaced immediately, as should one that is malfunctioning. It is a good idea to keep a spare extinguisher somewhere that can be used as a replacement while you find the time to buy a new one.
One of the most common causes of barn fires is malfunctioning or overturned space heaters. Space heaters should never be used in stalls, aisles or any area in which feed is being prepared.
If you choose to install a space heater in an office, lounge, tack room or bathroom, it should be bolted firmly to the wall so it cannot be knocked over and the wiring should be checked regularly.
All electric wiring in a barn should be inspected regularly, at least every couple of weeks and preferably more often. If you use fans for cooling, then do a full inspection and test of them in the spring, before they are needed. Some people remove the fans altogether in the fall and store them somewhere less dusty until spring.
Keep The Barn Clean
Cobwebs are known to be highly flammable, although spiders do provide the benefit of killing flies - this one may be a toss up.
What is not is keeping aisles clear of debris at all times. Don't leave wheelbarrows in the middle of the aisle and pick up grooming equipment and put it away when you are done with it. Never stack hay or grain in the aisle. Be particularly careful with muck rakes, which can also be a tripping hazard.
Keep doors at the ends of aisles open as much as the weather and security permit.
Plan For Evacuation
Come up with a proper evacuation plan and make sure everyone knows it. In large barns, evacuation drills should be held at least once a month. The evacuation plan should include where to put the horses and where the humans should assemble once the horses are evacuated.
Do not run back into a burning barn to get a horse - the horse's life is not worth yours. Same goes for barn dogs and cats. Evacuate as much as possible, but be ready to accept losses, as unpleasant as they may be.
Keep a halter and lead rope next to every stall (A good habit to get into anyway). If horses are in standing stalls or picketed in an open barn, make sure that the lead rope does not get so firmly knotted it can't be untied (I've seen this far too many times).
Never padlock stalls.
Also, bear in mind that if your horses aren't in the barn they can't become trapped there. Lots of turnout is good for horses in general, and it can also keep them safe.
Store Feed And Manure Carefully
The traditional hay loft is seldom used any more for a reason. Storing hay above stalls has been demonstrated to be a fire hazard.
The ideal place to store hay is in a separate building, at least a hundred yards away from the barn, although this is not always possible. Hay should be checked regularly and moldy hay should be immediately disposed of. Do not store hay outside stacked against the barn wall - this may seem ideal, but wet hay can spontaneously combust. Hay should always be under a roof or tarp in good repair.
Manure can also spontaneously combust. Muck heaps are also best positioned under shelter and away from the building. Get rid of manure as quickly as possible so it does not build up, or compost it properly. It's easy to get rid of manure - just keep a good relationship with the local gardening club.
Grain dust is a third fire hazard to worry about. Do not use space heaters, cooking devices or anything that produces an open flame in the feed room. Grain is best stored in solid metal bins (which will also keep out rodents). Grain bins should be closed except when actually getting food.
Talk To The Fire Department
Get on good terms with the fire department. Most fire departments will cheerfully send somebody over to inspect your barn. The inspector will make sure that fire trucks can get close to the barn and that there is enough water. He may also make other suggestions. This will also make sure that the fire department knows you have livestock and knows what gear to take if they do get called to your place.
If you do not live on the horse property and lock the gate at night, give the fire department a key to the gate. If you lock any doors to the barn, give them those keys too. You may also want to give them any paddock keys so that if they have to move horses they can get them into a pasture further away from the barn. Consider only padlocking pastures or paddocks when horses are turned out in them.
(I also recommend that if nobody lives on the barn property, a contact phone number be posted prominently, outside the barn, so that if anyone sees any kind of emergency they can call you).