Barn Fire!

Find out how you can protect your horses, whether you're a barn owner or boarder.

Around midday on January 19, 2012, breeder and trainer Julie Winkel looked out from her office at Maplewood Stables in Reno, Nevada, and saw a thick haze of smoke to the south. The wind was strong and the area had seen little rain or snow, so she was on alert for wildfires and realized that this one could blow her way. She immediately called her barn staff and told them to get ready to evacuate the 150-acre property.

A 2011 fire destroyed eventer Boyd Martin’s barn at True Prospect Farm in Pennsylvania. Six horses died. Amy K. Dragoo

“Within five minutes, we saw the fire coming over the hill,” Julie says, “and within half an hour my house had burned to the ground.” But Julie, her staff and her horses were safe. Thanks to good planning, quick action and support from the Reno horse community, 50 horses were evacuated from the property.

If fire breaks out at your horse’s barn, will he be so lucky? Barn fires spread so fast that there’s often not enough time to halter horses and lead them to safety. “Firefighters tell us that many times by the time they get to the fire, the barn is totally quiet because the animals are overcome by smoke,” says Rebecca Gimenez, who trains firefighters for emergencies involving horses. Planning and prevention are essential, fire and safety pros like Rebecca say, and in this article they explain how you can keep your horse from becoming a casualty statistic. Even if you board him at someone else’s barn, there are steps you can take.

Fire Facts
There were more than 200 fires in U.S. and Canadian horse barns last year, according to the log kept by barn-fire expert Laurie Loveman on her website, Among them was the Memorial Day-weekend blaze that killed six horses and destroyed eventing trainer Boyd Martin’s barn at True Prospect Farm in Chester County, Pennsylvania. Boyd’s Olympic prospect Neville Bardos was trapped inside until Boyd and True Prospect owner Phillip Dutton dragged him, burned and choking, out of the burning barn. Four other horses also made it out.

Amy K. Dragoo

The first months of 2012 brought more disastrous stable fires. Twenty-two horses died in January when flames destroyed an indoor arena with attached stabling at Heritage Acres in Lafayette Township, New Jersey. By the time the predawn fire was discovered, the metal doors were too hot to touch; rescue was impossible. In February a fire killed 27 Thoroughbreds–yearlings, 2-year-olds and stallions–at Campbell Stables in Grass Lake, Michigan. Firefighters arrived to find the barn engulfed in flames; the horses trapped inside had no chance.

Like most barn fires, these fires started accidentally. A typical horse barn is stuffed with everything a fire needs, including plenty of fuel (hay, bedding, wood timbers) and, often, materials such as gasoline and aerosol cans that act as accelerants, speeding the spread of flames. All it takes is a spark to set it off.

Electrical problems, faulty wiring or misuse of electrical equipment are the most common cause, Laurie says. Lightning strikes, sparks or heat from machines and equipment and heat buildup in stored hay or straw can start a fire. So can careless acts like smoking in or near a barn. The wildfire that swept through Maplewood started accidentally when an elderly man living several miles to the south put hot fireplace ashes outside. Fanned by near-hurricane-force winds, it ripped across more than six square miles and destroyed 29 homes before firefighters brought it under control.

Once fire starts in a barn, it can spread incredibly fast. “Most barns are fully involved within seven to ten minutes from the initial outbreak of flames and on the ground within fifteen to twenty minutes,” says Rebecca. The True Prospect fire followed a common sequence. Chester County fire officials say it started accidentally at ground level, traveled up into the hayloft and from there quickly raced through the structure.

To give your horse a chance against a threat like that, his home should be designed, built and run in ways that minimize fire risk.

Design for Disaster

Make sure horses can get out and firefighters can get in.

  • Give horses a direct exit by installing exterior doors on every stall. In a fire, heat and smoke quickly make a barn too dangerous to enter. Firefighters may try to chop through walls to get horses out, but it’s a lot faster to open a door. If you can’t have doors from the stalls, make sure the barn has multiple exits in case one is blocked.
  • Fence a lane from the barn to a safe enclosure. “The best and fastest way to ensure you can get your horses out in the first five to seven minutes of a fire is to have a fire lane and chase the horses into a gated pasture or paddock away from the barn,” Rebecca says. Don’t just release them?they’ll run back to the “safety” of the barn.
  • Have a water source for fire fighting. Most rural wells don’t provide enough pressure; firefighters can bring in water in tankers, but it’s better to have a source close by that they can pump from?a fire pond and standpipe, for example.
  • Make sure driveways are wide enough to let fire trucks get to the barn. Have more than one entrance if you can. In evacuating Maplewood, Julie says, “We have several ways off the property, and as the fire moved through, we had to use the back exit first and then the front.”

Seconds count in a fire, so keep gates and barn doors unlocked, and make sure vehicles are parked where they won’t block firefighters’ access to the barn.

Build for Safety

Traditional barns aren’t designed with fire in mind, but you can build or renovate a barn to make it safer. Extra features can help you detect fire, sound the alarm and suppress flames before it’s too late.

  • Choose fire-safe materials. No barn is fireproof, but masonry or cinderblock walls and a tile or metal roof are better than wood. Cover wood and other combustible surfaces with two coats of fire retardant latex paint.
  • Locate the electrical panel box in a dry, dust-free utility room and enclose all wiring in metal conduit to protect against breakage and gnawing rodents (or horses). Protect outlets, switches and fixtures with moisture- and dust-resistant covers, and add metal cages for incandescent bulbs.
  • Install a master switch outside the barn to cut off power and trickle-charged, battery-powered emergency lighting to help you evacuate the barn when the power is out.
  • Protect the barn from lightning with a grounded lightning-rod system. The Lightning Protection Institute has information about these systems, which should be professionally designed and installed.
  • Install smoke and heat detectors. Cheap smoke detectors are easily triggered by dust and may give false alarms in barns. Good options include ion smoke detectors, heat detectors and electronic flame detectors. Detectors won’t help if no one hears them go off, so link them to the police or fire department, an alarm service or an external siren that can be heard when no one is in the barn.
  • Install sprinklers. “A sprinkler system is the only proven way to suppress a fire until the fire department can get there,” Rebecca says. While the initial investment may seem high, she adds, weigh it against the value of your horses and your facility. “Additionally, you can usually get a lowered premium on your insurance.”
  • Have fire extinguishers within reach. Mount one at each entrance, in the tack room and storage areas and every 40 feet along barn aisles. “Get ten- to twenty-pound fire extinguishers–five pounds is not enough,” says Rebecca. Make sure they’re kept charged and that you know how to use them, and mark their locations with signs.

The National Fire Protection Association has a detailed standard for animal housing (NFPA 150); Laurie, who helped draft it, has information about it on her website, along with tips for new construction. Check local building codes as well.

Cut Fire Risks

Set rules and follow procedures that reduce fire dangers.

  • Ban smoking in and around your barn and enforce the ban. At Maplewood, where wildfire danger is high, “There’s no smoking anywhere on the property, even outdoors,” Julie says.
  • Clean up dead leaves, twigs and debris around your barn. If you live in an area where wildfires are possible, maintain a 50-foot firebreak by clearing brush, trees, tall grass and debris from the area.
  • Sweep the aisles, get rid of dust and cobwebs and keep your barn clean and clutter-free. Dust and cobwebs are fire hazards, as are oily rags and paper towels.
  • Store machinery and flammable materials–hay, bedding, fuels, fertilizer–in separate structures or in areas separated from the horses by firewalls. Manure piles, which can overheat and spontaneously combust, should be 20 feet or more from the barn. Fuels and accelerants should be in approved containers.
  • Be sure stored hay is cured properly and kept dry. Especially in the first six weeks after baling, monitor the temperature by inserting a thermometer into the middle of the haystack. Take action if the temperature reaches 150-160 F, before fire occurs. Have firefighters on the scene when you begin to remove hot bales; an infusion of air into the stack may cause the hay to burst into flames.
  • Use only UL-listed, grounded electrical appliances in the barn. Keep cords and plugs in good repair, disconnect them when not in use and don’t use extension cords.
  • Keep equipment that might generate heat or sparks; heat lamps, fans or other machinery away from hay and other combustibles. Don’t leave the equipment running when no one is around.

Plan and Prepare

Fires occur without warning, so it’s smart to keep a hose hooked up to an outside water source and a halter and lead rope on every stall door. Aisles and entrances should be clear and free of clutter. But horses and humans stand the best chance of getting away from a fire safely if there’s an emergency plan in place and if everyone knows and understands the plan.

Every facility is different, so work with your local fire department to develop a plan for yours. On a walk-through of your barn, fire crews will be able to point out fire-prevention steps you can take. You may also be able to set up a training session for firefighters at your barn, to help them be more familiar with handling horses in emergencies. “It would be even better to practice the evacuation once a year with the local department,” Rebecca says.

Planning paid off at Maplewood. “You can never really be prepared for something like this because you always think it won’t happen to you,” Julie says. “But we live in a fire-prone area, and nearby stables have had to evacuate their horses, so we have an evacuation plan. I go over it several times a year with the interns and others who work here to be sure everyone knows what to.”

A key part of any emergency plan is setting priorities. In Julie’s plan, horses are evacuated in order from three barns. “The stallion barn is first because of the value of the horses,” Julie says. “The main barn, which houses customers’ horses, is second; and the lower barn, which has my sale and young horses, is third. Then we evacuate horses at pasture, starting with pregnant mares. If we can’t get them all out, the rest are turned out in the fields.”

Just as important is knowing where to turn for help. “The horse community here was wonderful even before I called for help, trailers were pulling into the driveway,” Julie says. She trailered her horses to Lynn Mullins’ Meadow View Farms a few miles northwest; the fire threatened that property, too, but never reached it.

Everyone worked fast and stayed calm. As soon as each trailer unloaded, it headed back to Maplewood for more horses. Several quick-thinking interns closed windows and doors to empty barns and the indoor arena, to keep smoke out. Another moved tractors and other farm vehicles to the middle of the sand outdoor ring to keep them away from the flames.

Everything didn’t go according to plan, Julie says: “Our water truck is supposed to always be full, and it wasn’t. We just weren’t expecting a fire in winter?fires are more common here in summer, when there are lightning strikes.” And although Maplewood had a fire hydrant installed at the request of the fire department, no one on the farm could operate it.

Workers had to think on their feet as the fire moved through, setting up different staging and loading areas to escape shifting smoke and flames. Besides Julie’s home, the fire destroyed fencing and a rarely used barn at the front of the property. But the main barn was spared when the fire passed around it, and no humans or horses were harmed.

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