Preventing Barn Fires Part 1

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Credit: Thinkstock

Credit: Thinkstock

In this first of a two-part article series, we discuss various causes of barn fires and how to prevent them.

At least one devastating barn fire makes the news every year. For anyone who owns horses or manages farms, it is scary to hear of a barn fire. Could this happen to you?

Fortunately, there is a well-developed body of knowledge about preventing fires. In this first article in a two-part series, we will explore the various causes of fires so we can help build awareness and give you the tools to keep your barn safe. In our second article (which will appear on StableManagement. com), we will focus specifically on electrical systems and electrical appliances.

As a result of better technologies, our society has become less savvy about actually preventing fires. Homes are built safer and commercial buildings are generally required to have building sprinkler systems. In 2007, the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) enacted code NFPA 150, which requires sprinkler systems in buildings containing animals. In 2013, as a result of pressure from agricultural businesses, the code was amended to exclude this requirement for buildings housing non-dangerous domesticated animals such as horses.

If we know that fire sprinkler systems make buildings safer, why would agricultural businesses resist their implementation? Because we know it is difficult and costly to install sprinkler systems in partially heated buildings or buildings that rely on a well water system. Nevertheless, if you own a large operation, we encourage you to investigate the possibility of installing a fire sprinkler system, as it is by far the best way to ensure the safety of the occupants regardless of other circumstances.

Acknowledging that the majority of barns will remain without fire sprinklers, let’s investigate the most common causes of fires so that we can help you prevent them. We will begin on the outside of the barn.

Wildfires

Perhaps not the most common, but certainly the most dramatic, type of fire is one that comes from the landscape around your structures. Living in Colorado, we experience terrifying wildfires that threaten barns and horses regularly. We have personally lived through several of these frightening events, and we encourage you to follow the following advice.

Sit down with your team and develop a fire plan. Get buy-in on your plan from all of your boarders. This might mean getting their written legal permission ahead of time to evacuate their horses in the event of a fire or other disaster. Some boarders will refuse. Keep a log of which horses can be evacuated and which cannot based on your signed permission forms.

Run your evacuation plan by your local fire authorities and get their input. Amend the plan as required. Understand where their authority takes over (and it will), and understand that their job is to protect human lives. Working with them ahead of time will allow you to effectively communicate and implement your plan for your farm before it is too late.

Create a worst-case scenario plan, such as letting the horses out into pasture from the barn, in the event that there is not enough time to evacuate them. Horses don’t do well trying to protect themselves, but we owe them the best chance we can. You will be forced off your property in a life-threatening event, so think through the possible worst-case scenarios so you can act in a clear-headed manner should one of them come to pass.

Do not let everyone be in charge. Designate a clear chain of command for your fire plan. Remove people who act against it, as the plan is there for everyone’s safety.

We focus on the implementation plan first because you could be surprised by a wildfire without having had the opportunity to make updates to your facilities and property to prevent damage. Fortunately, there is a lot of good information available about keeping your barns safe from wildfires. If you live in an area where wildfires occur, please look for this article on StableManagement.com, read the reference material linked there cover-to-cover and make plans to implement it. It could save your horses’ lives.

For more on wildfires and structure safety see the accompanying article on StableManagement.com.

Prohibit Smoking

Smoking around barns is unsafe; it is also one of the most common causes of fires. Your barn and property must be smokefree. Implement a “no-smoking” policy on your property and post signs. Enforce your policy actively.

Install Smoke Detectors

While many people cannot install sprinkler systems, everyone can and should install smoke detectors. You will need a detector that has the ability to distinguish smoke from dust. In order for your smoke detection system to really work, it must be installed by a professional who knows exactly what type to use and where to place individual detectors.

Install Lightning Protection

Lightning is more common in some areas of the country than others. Lightning strikes are more likely in exposed areas, particularly at high altitudes. Lightning is also common in some states such as Florida. Regardless of where you live, it is relatively simple to protect your buildings from lightning. Lighting protection consists of a rod and a grounding device. To learn more about lightning protection for your buildings, refer to modernlightning.com.

Prevent Hazardous Storage

Do not store the following items in your barn:

  • vehicles
  • gasoline
  • combustible or volatile fluids
  • aerosols
  • paints
  • oxygen and other compressed gases

If you must store these items, keep them away from people and animals in separate structures that are designated for storage.

Prevent Possible Spontaneous Combustion

Spontaneous combustion of hay and other organic materials is one of the most common causes of fire. Wet or moldy hay in particular can generate enough heat to catch fire. This is why it is not advised to store hay in your horse barn.

If you must store some hay in your barn, store only a small amount, and keep it off the floor to prevent it from becoming moldy or damp. Feed should be stored in containers and kept dry.

Bedding such as straw and shavings are in the same category as hay. They should not be stored in any quantity in the horse barn. Keep your primary hay and bedding storage well away from and downwind of your barns. Keep these materials covered to prevent mold. Your manure pile and trash dumpsters should also be away from barns. Even a pile of oily rags can start a fire that could easily spread to your barns.

Maintain a Tidy Barn

The best rule of thumb for a safe barn is to keep it neat and tidy at all times. You have the power to prevent fires in your barn, and the first step in prevention is to set standards for barn keeping. Here are some easy-to-implement operational tips:

  • Keep all feed areas clean and store only small amounts.
  • Rodents can chew electrical wires, putting you at risk for fires. This is why we advise you to go on rodent patrol. Vigilantly sweep up spilled feed. Use lidded food storage containers and lidded trash cans. Lock up personal belongings in rodent-proof lockers. Employ the help of spayed and neutered barn cats, which your humane society or local cat rescue group will be happy to supply to you. Do not use pesticides for rodent control.
  • Do not store any unnecessary items in or around your barn.
  • Do not store items in front of electrical panels.
  • Remove shrubs and bushes from around barn areas and clip the grass around your barns to prevent accidental fires from spreading.

Teach Fire Safety

One of the most challenging yet powerful lessons about fire prevention is that it is a team effort. It is important that everyone who works and rides at your barn understands the rules and is educated about how to keep the property and horses safe.

Post signs about your rules, in particular “No Smoking” signs. If you have a boarding agreement or do a monthly newsletter, regularly cover fire safety so that newcomers get the benefit of the message. Install fire extinguishers in prominent locations and inspect them regularly to ensure they are in working order. See if your local fire department will give a hands-on demonstration of fire extinguisher use. If you live in an area prone to wildfires, educate each person about your fire evacuation plan, and get permission to act on his or her behalf during an emergency.

Take-Home Message

Other than expensive fire sprinkler systems, the vast majority of fire prevention measures require no special financial resources. Your greatest resource is knowledge. Take your fear of fire and its devastating effects and turn it into a mission to protect the people and horses on your property.

Stay tuned for Part 2 on barn fires from Animal Arts’ Tony Cochrane. The second article will appear on StableManagement.com and will focus on electrical systems and devices.