Barn Fires: Prevention Tips and Checklist
By Dr. Tom Lenz
As the weather grows colder and horses are moved indoors, the risk of barn fires increases dramatically. In the summer, lightning and spontaneous combustion of hay are primary causes of fire. In the winter, fire usually results from faulty heaters, electrical wiring problems or rodents chewing through wires.
Generally, a fire involving combustible materials such as wood, hay, straw and shavings doubles in size every minute – meaning you have about eight minutes to get your horses out of a burning barn. Even if the horses escape, smoke inhalation could cause permanent lung damage or even death. Prevention is paramount.
Preventing Barn Fires
- If possible, store hay in a building separate from the horse barn. Hay that was baled damp can build up internal heat and ignite spontaneously.
- If hay must be stored in the barn, break a bale open every week or so to check for heat. If you feel heat between flakes of hay, remove the bales. Store the least amount of hay possible in the barn, preferably at the ground level and away from electrical wires.
- Rodents living in hay love to gnaw through the coating around electrical wires, and exposed wires could start a fire. To prevent this, all electrical wires in the horse barns should be encased in metal conduits.
- Light bulbs should have a metal mesh cage around them to prevent breaking.
- Install a smoke detector or heat detector above the haystack.
- Never store flammables such as gasoline and kerosene in the barn. Because many grooming aids, insecticides and leather-conditioning agents also are flammable, if the label says “flammable,” store the item away from the barn or in a fire-resistant metal tack box.
- Store gas-powered garden tractors and lawn mowers elsewhere.
- Clean the barn weekly and remove empty feed sacks, cobwebs and discarded hay.
- Get rid of dust on space heaters and heat lamps; it can spontaneously combust.
- Be especially careful with extension cords. Use the heavy-duty, industrial-rated type, and as soon as you’re finished with the task, unplug and put the cord away. Using one long cord is better than plugging several shorter cords together. If shorter cords must be used, tape the connections with electrical tape.
- Put the manure pile some distance from the barn. Heat generated by decomposing manure can start a fire if combustible materials are near.
Fire Detection and Management Plan
- Install smoke detectors and check them periodically to make sure they work and the batteries are charged.
- Place fire extinguishers at strategic points in the barn and inspect them regularly.
- Install ceiling sprinklers where applicable, especially over stored hay and individual stalls.
- Institute a “no smoking” policy, or limit smoking to areas away from the barn.
- Ensure all buildings have at least two easily accessible and unblocked exits.
- Install hoses attached to water taps in the barn, especially if the property is in a remote area difficult for the fire department to access. Hoses should be large enough to shoot water up onto the barn roof.
- Make sure everyone who lives and works on the property knows your fire evacuation plan. Conduct fire drills periodically.
- Because horse owners often have only their name on mailboxes, firefighters unfamiliar with the area might have trouble quickly locating their property when responding to an alarm, so put your address on your mailbox.
A fire in a horse barn is a devastating event. Reduce potential fire hazards and develop a quick and efficient disaster plan.
Editor's note: Thomas R. Lenz, DVM, M.S., Diplomate of the American College of Theriogenologists, is a trustee of the American Horse Council, serves on AQHA’s research committee and is a past president of the American Association of Equine Practitioners. Dr. Lenz is a member of the American Quarter Horse Hall of Fame and a former columnist for The American Quarter Horse Journal.
Fire Prevention Checklist
Keep this list handy, courtesy of Laurie Loveman.
Using this checklist, walk through your barn and see what needs to be corrected.
Mark this form with Yes or No next to each question to identify problem areas that need correction.
_____ Are aisles and doorways clear of debris or "stored" objects?
_____ Are cobwebs removed weekly, if not more often?
_____ Are all electric motors on both fixed and portable appliances completely sealed?
_____ Have all lightweight (lamp-type) extension cords been removed?
_____ If extension cords are in use (temporarily only) are they industrial or heavy-duty rated?
_____ Are any electrical cords hanging from or supported by nails?
_____ Is all permanent electrical wiring in conduit?
_____ Are cages installed over all light bulbs?
_____ Is there a master electric power switch on the outside of the barn?
_____ Is there a frost-proof water hydrant at or near the entrance to the barn?
_____ Is there a water hose long enough to reach the opposite end of the barn?
_____ Is hay stored stored in a shed or in another building at least 100 feet from the barn?
_____ Is hay dry and well-cured? Is hay in a waterproof area?
_____ Is stall bedding stored in an area away from the animals?
_____ Is used stall bedding (manure pile) kept in an area away from the barn?
_____ Have cleaning cloths contaminated with any petroleum product been properly disposed of?
_____ Is a sign with fire department information posted by the telephone?
_____ Is an emergency animal escape plan displayed?
_____ If you have a "runway" exit to a pasture, have all animals been trained to use it?
_____ Can fire apparatus reach the barn? (Check road surface, gate and curbs.)
_____ Have you invited your fire department to visit your property for purposes of making a pre-plan?