The best defense against barn fire

Take these steps now to reduce the risk of a potential tragedy.

One evening long ago, an old barn near my home caught fire and lit up the sky. Two horses made it out; a third perished. I was only 8 at the time, but I vividly remember the sights, sounds and smells; the hushed voices of the adults; and the sadness that hung over the community for days afterward.

A bale of hay on fire
Hay can spontaneously combust, so it’s important to store it in a building or space well away from where the horses reside.

I was never told what caused that fire, but at that early age I had learned a hard lesson of horsemanship: One fatal mistake, and with almost no warning, our hopes and dreams can vanish in a flash of flame and smoke. 

“Once fire starts, it can take less than 15 minutes to totally obliterate a barn and everything in it,” says Laurie Loveman, a fire-safety expert and retired horse breeder from Chagrin Falls, Ohio. And smoke asphyxiation is likely to kill the occupants long before the flames do. In other words, even if you’re close at hand, by the time you realize the barn is on fire, it may already be too late to save the lives of any horses trapped inside. 

That’s why preventing barn fires is so important. Sure, we all learn the basics of fire safety early—but it’s still a good idea to inspect your barn and review your policies and procedures periodically, just to make sure you’re not overlooking any hazards or getting complacent.

A fire requires three “ingredients”: oxygen, heat and fuel. A well-ventilated barn will allow plenty of airflow, and most contain ample fuel in the form of hay, bedding and feeds. Your goal, then, is to reduce the chances that a fire will start and, if it does, to keep it from spreading far or fast. These actions could well save lives.

Eliminate ignition sources

• Don’t allow smoking, ever. One tiny ember dropped into a bit of hay or straw is all it takes to start a fire. Enforce a zero-tolerance policy toward smoking in or near your barn, and extend it to everyone—family, friends, boarders and any workmen who come by. If you’re concerned about people who might be there when you’re not, post No Smoking signs prominently in all areas of your property. To accommodate smokers, consider establishing a “cigarette break” area, with ashtrays and a sand-filled bucket for butts, well away from the barn, preferably on a paved or gravel-covered area.

• Remove oily rags immediately. Rags or towels soaked with oil-based liquids then dropped in a pile can easily reach temperatures hot enough to self-ignite. Linseed oil, often used in wood varnishes and leather conditioners, is a common culprit, but rags soaked in other flammable liquids can also catch fire. If you use rags to apply or wipe up flammable liquids around the barn, remove them immediately and place them in a sealed metal container outside, well away from any structures. Hanging or spreading the rags to dry before disposing of them will also reduce the risk of fire.

• Store hay away from the barn. If hay is baled and stored before it is properly dried, there’s a risk for spontaneous combustion in the center, where the moisture and heat are under pressure. When the temperature in the center of the hay rises above 130 degrees Fahrenheit, chemical reactions begin to occur that produce gases that are flammable when they come in contact with air. The risk is greater in hot, humid weather, especially if the hay is stored in an inadequately ventilated space that prevents it from drying out. Spontaneous combustion is more likely to occur within the first month or two after the hay was harvested and stored. 

“Spontaneous combustion of hay happens more than people realize, which is why I always advise storing hay away from the barn where horses are kept,” says Phoenix, Arizona, Fire Department Captain Jonathan Jacobs. The risk is high enough to warrant building a separate shed for hay storage some distance from the main barn. Signs that your stored hay may be overheating include moisture condensing on the ceiling and walls and a musty or acrid “burning” odor. 

If you don’t have a temperature probe, you can drive a pipe into the center of your hay and drop in a candy thermometer on a string for 10 to 15 minutes. If the reading is 130 to 160 degrees, disassemble the pile and spread the bales out to cool. If the temperature is over 160 degrees, call the fire department immediately; the hay may already be smoldering. Do not remove any bales from the stack. The sudden exposure to air could trigger an explosive ignition of the hot gases. Do not walk over the top of the hay; smoldering spots may have undermined the stack, and you could fall into a burning pocket.

• Inspect wiring. Frayed wiring, especially in older buildings, is a common cause of electrical fires. “So many old dairy barns that people have converted into use for horses are fire hazards because of electrical problems,” says Loveman. Ideally, you’d have all-new electrical wiring enclosed in industrial-grade conduits that protect against chewing rodents; these need to be free of corrosion and securely fastened down so that horses can’t tear them loose. If you’re not ready to upgrade, inspect your wiring periodically for signs of wear or damage. If you don’t already have them, install protective cages over light bulbs. It’s also a good idea to have a master switch in your home or another building that allows you to cut off power to the barn electrical system in the event of a catastrophe.

Modernizing the wiring in an older barn can be expensive, but the cost may be worth it. Consider having a licensed electrician inspect your system; he’ll be able to tell you whether your system is safe or if an upgrade is needed. 

• Unplug unused appliances. Never leave appliances like electric kettles unattended, and make it a habit to unplug them when they’re not in use. When you’re done with extension cords, pick them up and store them. Heat lamps and other devices that are left on for long periods can easily cause fires. Use them sparingly, if at all. “Portable heating units—that’s one of my major concerns,” says Loveman. “They are so seldom needed and so dangerous.”

Clear out as much fuel as you can

• Sweep, dust and knock down cobwebs regularly. Wisps of loose hay and straw along the floor and cobwebs full of dust and debris cloaking the ceiling beams provide pathways that help fire travel quickly throughout the barn. Dust, too, can feed fires. Your barn need not be spotless, but the more you clean, the safer it will be. Be especially vigilant about dusting incandescent or fluorescent light bulbs and electrical outlets. Better still, install electrical outlets that are made for outdoor use, with covers to keep the dirt out. “Any place you allow dust to settle, that’s just another chance for fire to spread because dust explodes,” says Loveman.

• Remove clutter. Worn-out blankets, broken tack and all the miscellaneous odds and ends that tend to accumulate in the little-used corners of a barn only add fuel to a fire. 

If your clutter has piled up, it’s time to sort, organize and dispose of items. Tack that is still functional can be donated to a local rescue; anything else can go in the trash or recycling bin. If your barn is also used for general storage of household goods or farm tools, consider building a separate shed or garage, especially for flammable objects.

• Store flammable liquids properly. Never keep gasoline, propane, motor oil or other combustible liquids in the barn, even temporarily. But be aware that some hoof paints, alcohol-based medications and other products used around horses can also be flammable under the right conditions. Go through your products, checking all the labels, and make sure you are following the manufacturer’s instructions for safe storage. While you’re at it, check the expiration dates and properly dispose of anything that’s gotten too old.

“Anything can turn into hazardous material,” says Loveman. “If you have old salves and ointments that sit around for a couple years because you don’t use them or have forgotten about them, over time some of those chemicals can change. And where they once weren’t dangerous they can become dangerous.”

Make the building safer

• Install and regularly inspect fire extinguishers. Hand-held fire extinguishers can help keep a small fire from spreading. Keep an extinguisher mounted near each doorway and in the tack room. Choose extinguishers rated type ABC, which can be used on wood, liquid and electrical fires. Also make sure anyone who frequents your barn is trained and able to use the extinguishers. Last, check your extinguishers once or twice a year to see that they have not expired. Some models may be repressurized; others will have to be replaced.

• Keep aisles and doorways clear. Tools, buckets, wheelbarrows and other clutter left in aisles can block your access if you need to evacuate horses in a hurry, and they may get in the way of firefighters. Stay diligent about keeping unused tools and equipment properly stored. Also, make it a policy to keep cars and other vehicles parked well away from barn doors and driveways so that emergency equipment can approach.

• Apply fire-retardant or fire-resistant paints and varnishes. You’ll find a variety of products available—interior and exterior paints in various colors, varnishes, additives you can add to your own paints—that can prevent walls, ceilings or floors from igniting. The paints won’t stop a fire, but they may at least slow its spread long enough to evacuate animals safely. Make sure you choose a product designed for the type of surfaces you have—wood, metal, concrete, etc.—and follow application instructions carefully.

• Build or remodel with nonflammable materials. Barns can be built with a variety of materials, including concrete and steel, that are less flammable than wood and may be a good choice for your climate and budget. When building or remodeling with wood, consider using lumber that has been pressure treated with fire-retardant chemicals. These materials may still burn but more slowly than conventional lumber. According to Loveman, fire-retardant treated wood can be stained, varnished or painted just like any lumber, and unlike with applied flame-retardant products, the wood will be protected on all sides. 

Also, if you’re building or remodeling, consult the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 150 standard for codes and guidelines on fire safety in animal housing facilities.

• Install a lightning rod. Lightning rods are metal structures mounted on the top of the barn that, when struck by lightning, conduct the burst of electricity down through a system of wires and cables to dissipate safely into the ground, bypassing the flammable building. It’s a myth that lightning rods attract lightning—they intercept strikes that would have occurred anyway. If thunderstorms are common in your area, a lightning rod system can prevent fires and serious structural damage to your barn.

Invest in long-term solutions

• Put in a sprinkler system. A network of pipes in the ceiling that automatically spray water when they detect high heat, sprinkler systems are not yet common in barns. But unlike smoke detectors, which simply sound an alert, sprinkler systems can actually douse fires before serious damage is done. “Builders probably won’t mention it, and ordinances don’t exist in most states requiring you to put in a sprinkler system, but it’s worth it,” says Loveman—sprinkler systems save lives. 

She cites one example from a shedrow barn at the Philadelphia Park racetrack. In 2007 a faulty box fan motor caught fire and fell down into a stall, igniting the straw. Within seconds, a sprinkler system activated and doused the flames. The occupant of that stall experienced a singed tail and blisters on one hind leg but no additional injuries; no other horses were hurt. The water damage from sprinklers is typically less than that from fire hoses.

• Landscape for flame resistance. In addition to keeping your grass mowed short around the barn and any shrubs or trees pruned, consider taking additional measures to reduce the risk of fire reaching the barn—especially if you live in an area prone to wildfires. 

Start by evaluating your landscaping plants, and consider replacing flammable species with flame-resistant ones. Although no plant is 100 percent fireproof, some species and varieties do not burn as readily as others. Fire-resistant plants retain water in their leaves, do not tend to accumulate dead branches, and have watery and free-flowing sap. Succulents and many deciduous trees and shrubs are considered fire resistant. In contrast, highly flammable plants tend to retain dead twigs, needles or leaves; they may contain volatile oils in their leaves or bark; and their sap is sticky and resinous. Juniper, a conifer in the cypress family, is one example of a highly flammable tree. Check with your local extension agent or fire-safety agency for guidance on fire-resistant plants native to your area.

Jacobs suggests creating three landscaping zones, each about 30 to 50 feet wide: Immediately around the barn, cover the ground with gravel or stone pavers, with perhaps a few widely-spaced ground cover plants. The second zone could include hardscaping features such as rock walls or low-growing fire-resistant plants that remain green through most of the seasons. The third zone could include taller shrubs and small trees. Trim the lower limbs to help prevent fire from crawling up the trunks, and keep all of the zones watered and free of dead leaves, fallen branches and other debris. 

• Set up a ready water supply. Fire hydrants linked to a municipal supply are the ideal source of water for firefighters. However, many rural properties aren’t linked to “city” water—when the fire trucks come, they’ll need an alternative source. If you have a pond, river or other permanent natural body of water on your property, one option is to install a dry hydrant-pipe that draws water from the water source and sends it to a hose connector near the barn. “That’s a help to the fire department, because it allows them to pull water from a pond up into their pumper to use for firefighting,” says Loveman. Although the pumper might also be able to pull water directly from the pond, the dry hydrant saves time, it sidesteps the risk that the fire truck might not be able to approach the water due to marshy ground, and it allows the firemen to use the water under higher pressure than they could if they had to place their pumper farther away.

If you don’t have a natural body of water on your property, ordinary garden hoses can help; have at least two installed along the barn, in case one isn’t approachable in a fire. “Right off the bat, if they can affect that fire with a spigot hose, one on each side of their barn, they can knock down a fire enough to make a difference,” says Jacobs. He attributes one stable owner’s quick thinking and ordinary garden hoses for the survival of all the horses at a stable that recently broke out in flames in his jurisdiction: “It was enough so that we could get between the horses and the fire and put it out.”

Once you’ve taken steps to make your barn safe, call your local fire department and ask for an inspector to come out to evaluate your barn and property. He can identify hazards you might have overlooked and give you a checklist of further steps you can take. He might also offer pointers on evacuating animals safely. Your local fire personnel can also create a pre-fire plan—with details such as the number, size and locations of structures on your property as well as water sources—so they’ll be better prepared to help you in the event of an emergency. 

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