Your Worst Nightmare

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Worried about fire? If your barn is like most, you should be. Many items that are normally found in and around a horse barn—stored jumps, stacked lumber, a manure pile, gas-powered motors, hay, bedding—are highly flammable. One little spark, and the whole place can quickly go up in flames. Fortunately, you can cut way down on fire risk by taking the preventive steps outlined below. And since accidents do happen—even in the most modern, best-managed, best-designed barns—you’ll cope better if fire does break out by following our tips for being prepared.

KEEP FIRE FROM HAPPENING

SNUFF OUT SMOKING. Barns and cigarettes just don’t mix. Post “No Smoking” signs inside and out, and allow no exceptions, not for the vet, the shoer, or the international clinician you invited to teach. New boarders? Make “No Smoking” one of the first rules they learn.

BANISH BURNABLES. Hay that’s been baled damp can build up internal heat and spontaneously combust. Even when hay has been baled correctly, it and bedding are a ready-made source of fuel. Avoid spontaneous combustion problems by knowing where your hay comes from. Stack and store both hay and bedding in a separate building well away from the barn. Only bring enough into the barn to feed one meal at a time or to bed one day’s stalls.

Store flammable liquids such as gasoline, liniment, kerosene, paint thinner, blade wash and half-used cans of paint in a small shed or outbuilding, preferably in a fire-containing metal cabinet. The same goes for any equipment that runs on gasoline (and the rags you use to clean them), such as tractors, chain saws, weed eaters and lawn mowers.

Electric space heaters, kettles to warm water, and crock pots that cook mash all night? They are disasters waiting to happen. Only operate them when you’re present in the barn, and don’t just turn them off when you leave—unplug them as well.

Finally, every day sweep up loose hay and litter from the barn aisles. And take the time each week to use a broom or long-handled feather duster to knock down cobwebs. Not only are they unsightly, they’re highly flammable.

BUST THE DUST. Barns by nature are dusty places. But when dust builds up in electric appliances, it can cause overheating, which can start fires (in the case of smoke detectors, built-up dust can trigger false alarms). Attach a nozzle to your air compressor and regularly blow dust off of and out of fans, fly spray pumps, clippers, vacuum cleaners, hot water heaters, heat lamps, smoke detectors, and any other electric motors you have.

CUT THE CORDS. Get rid of that household-type extension cord you bought years ago at the grocery store, and replace it with a 12- or 14-gauge industrial-rated cord. Then only use it for a temporary job like powering your electric clippers. When you’re done, unplug the cord and put it away. NEVER use an extension cord for permanent duty, such as bringing power to an out-of-reach refrigerator. Rodents can gnaw through the insulated coating, and the hooks or nails the cord is draped over can abrade the rubber away. In either case, you’ve got bare, exposed wire ready to spark and cause a blaze.

Many barns, including most older ones, are under-equipped with outlets. In these cases, have an electrician come out and install some that are up to code. It’s worth every penny. While he’s there, ask him to install metal cages around exposed light bulbs so they can’t be accidentally broken by a rearing horse.

CLEAN UP THE CLUTTER. Old saddle pads, worn-out tack, spare burlap sacks—they just seem to accumulate around a barn. At the least, they gather dust; at the worst, they serve as fuel. And fire risk or no, they’re always in the way. Be merciless about clearing them out. While you’re at it, if some of your tack trunks and paraphernalia must be kept in the barn aisle, designate one side for holding them and keep the other side free and clear as a passageway.

FREE UP FOUNDATIONS. Make sure the area right around and up to your barn is free of weeds, underbrush, and ornamental plantings that could all feed a fire. Cut down or trim trees that drop leaves or needles on the roof or on the ground close to exterior walls. Get rid of or relocate old fencing, broken jumps, and other debris that’s been piled against the back wall of the barn. And relocate your manure pile if it’s close to the barn. Under certain hot and dry conditions, it can spontaneously combust.

PREPARE BEFORE FIRE STRIKES

HAVE A PLAN. Figure out exactly what you’ll do to get the horses out of the barn, and where you’ll take them. The first step is to keep a halter and attached lead rope on every stall door. Make sure the lead rope is tied with a quick release knot. If your boarders and employees don’t know how to tie one, have them practice until they learn. You’ll also want the horses to get used to being blindfolded. Using old t-shirts or towels, practice leading the horses with the blindfold—even the quietest horse can act a little crazy when there is fire involved. And make sure there are plenty of towels, stored in a handy place for just this purpose.

Have at least one “rescue” pasture where you can put horses in a fire emergency. Make sure it’s accessible, with a gate that can be opened and closed by one person, and a gate latch that can be operated with one hand. Try to locate it as far from the action as possible—the last thing you want is to rescue your horses, then have them run through the fence at the sound of the fire truck’s air horn. Based on your plan, run “fire drills” until you’ve got your procedure down cold. But remember, the best plan is always prevention.

BE EASY TO GET TO. Make sure your entrance is clearly marked, not just with your farm or barn name, but with your 911 address. Your driveway should be 10- to 12-feet wide with 10- to 12-feet height clearance to accommodate fire trucks. Since you may be frantic when you call 911, print up cards with emergency information that you can clearly read. Include the 911 street address, barn name, number of horses, and cross streets or brief directions if you’re in a rural area. Laminate the cards and keep one next to the barn phone, but since that may be inaccessible in a fire, keep another next to the house phone and another in your car by your cell phone.

PICK THE RIGHT FIRE EXTINGUISHERS. In the tack room (and living quarters if there are any), you’re most likely to encounter electrical or cooking fires—the kind you don’t want to put water on. Equip those areas with dry powder ABC extinguishers. In the aisleways, where you may have to deal with electrical fires and/or fires fueled by shavings, hay, wood, and paper, keep dry powder ABC extinguishers as well as 2-1/2 gallon water extinguishers (dry powder will knock down the flames of a wood fire, but it won’t remove the heat. If you don’t douse the hot spots with water, the fire can flare up again). And with even the smallest blaze that you successfully extinguish yourself, ask the fire department to come out and check, because it could still be smoldering, or could be creeping up between the walls, ready to break out again.

KEEP WATER ACCESSIBLE. Make sure your spigots are frost-free so they work in all weather. If you use electric heat tape, by the way, check the tape frequently, as it is a potential source of malfunction and sparks. Be certain you have enough hoses to reach the full length of your barn.

Think your pond is a source of fire-fighting water? Think again. In all likelihood, the big fire trucks won’t be able to make it through your pasture without bogging down. If you’re in a rural area miles from the nearest hydrant, as many horse barns are, consider installing a tank for water storage.

THEY’RE YOUR FIREMEN—GET TO KNOW THEM

Most fire departments are more than happy to visit your farm under controlled circumstances (once a fire’s raging, things are basically out of control). They’ll not only make a courtesy fire-prevention inspection, they’ll check that your 911 street address is correct, and scope out your layout to devise what’s called a “pre-incident plan.” Considerations: accessibility, the availability of water (including whether or not your horse pond will do), the amount of water they estimate they might need (one burning bale of hay can take 60 to 100 gallons to extinguish), the number of horses in the barn, the presence of living quarters, and the location of septic tanks (a fire truck driving over one can fall in and get stuck). You, in turn, may be able to share horse-handling tips with the non-equestrians on their team. And they will probably stress that any fire-fighting recommendations they make, such as installing frost-free spigots or having a detailed plan for getting the horses out, are not invitations for you to fight a fire before calling 911.The best way to fight fire is to get the fire department to your barn as soon as possible.They can't do anything until they're notified.