Fire Prevention In Barns

Here in Florida, we are heading into our wildfire season soon. As Australia is suffering from the tragedy of those horrific wildfires, I thought it would be a good time to share my fire protection notes again.

Over the years, I have hosted Chris Woodcock, a firefighter with Seminole County to speak at our pony club and Old Peoples Riding Club meetings. I first met Chris many years ago, when I approached him about inspecting the barn I was leasing and to teach him and his fellow firefighters how to lead horses from a burning barn. Below is a compilation of notes that I have taken from each meeting:

So the main ideas of fire safety in the barn is good old common sense. The first and foremost is:

Absolutely, positively, NO SMOKING! This is not up for discussion. I am always shocked to see someone smoking in or near a barn.

In addition, the obvious (at least to me) are:

•Keep flammables and machinery out of the barn.

•Keep debris off the roof.

•Keep vegetation away from barn. You should maintain a 40-50 foot firebreak around your property.

•Remove cobwebs. Not only are they unsightly, but cobwebs are fire hazards. (So you no longer have to justify your meticulous barn cleaning and the fact that your barn is cleaner than your house).

•If possible, store hay in a separate building. I learned this at the age of 6, when my grandfather explained why he wouldn’t store hay in his 4 story wood barn (built in 1904 and still standing!). Stack hay loosely and make sure it is properly cured and dry.

•Use only UL listed appliances and outdoor extension cords.

•Don’t leave extension cords exposed to horses. I never understand when I walk into a barn, and the electrical outlet is right next to the stall door, right where the horse can chew on it. Yes, it is there for convenience, but surely, is it not obvious that sooner or later, a horse is going to chew on the cord?

•While on the subject of cords: don’t run them across floors, where a shod horse can step on one. If you have a cord that is patched with electrical tape, toss it. The life of your horse is worth more than the $7 to replace it.

•Don’t set heavy objects on cords, which can generate heat. Chris mentioned a house fire they put out, which was caused by a sofa sitting on an extension cord.

•Fire extinguishers! Have them at every opening,in the middle and at both ends of the barn and within ready access. Make sure you know how to use one!

•Smoke detectors! Get the good kind, that won’t be triggered by dust. Put one in your hay loft or attic….Chris said many fires he goes to, the homeowner had no idea the house was on fire, until a neighbor knocked on their door to alert them to a fire in their attic.

•If possible, install a fire sprinkler.

•Have hoses outside the barn.

•Is your wiring up to date and safe from critters chewing on it? Make sure all wiring is enclosed in metal conduit. Replace any frayed wires.

•Is the master switch to the power readily accessible outside the barn?

•Install lightning rods.

•Do not use electrical heaters in the barn! A barn fire last year killed several horses when the owners put a heater in a stall to warm a newborn calf.

•Do not use Lasko or other box fans. They are not designed for barn use! Buy only heavy duty metal fans!

•Hay rolls! This year, I fed a hay roll late into spring, which was a first for me. The season was already warm, but we still didn’t have enough grass yet. One day after an impromtu rain, which didn’t give me time to cover the hay roll, I was pulling back the wet layers, and discovered that the hay just below the surface was hot. Just as damp hay in a barn can combust, so can a hay roll.

•Don’t forget shavings! Many of us now use bagged shavings, and these too can combust. They should be stored safely.

•Manure piles also can “cook”. Piles should be far away from the barn.

•Scan your barn. Do you have rags, assorted cans, fertilizer and other contaminates lying around? You would be surprised at what you find.

In addition, make sure your barn is easily accessible by a fire truck. Is the driveway wide enough? Are overhead tree limbs going to hinder the firetruck? Do you have large numbers which are easily read on your fence, gate or mailbox?

You should make contact with your local fire department. Ask them to come to your farm, so they know that they can reach your barn, and know where local water sources are at. Show them around your barn and ask them to point out potential hazards. And while you are at it, ask them if they know how to lead a horse. Show them how to halter a horse while in its stall, in case the unthinkable happens and they need to rescue your horse.

Barn fires are also caused by wildfires, which is why it is important to clear debris. During dry seasons, pay extra attention to the news and be aware of any fires in your area. Be prepared to evacuate at moments notice. One year, a friend tried to evacuate her mare from the barn where she was boarding, only to be told that the road was closed and she couldn’t get to the farm. Thankfully, the fire went around the barn and she was eventually able to remove her horse, but had the barn owner given an evacuation order earlier, instead of practicing a “wait and see”, my friend, the other boarders and all the horses at the farm would have been saved from the stress and the inhaling of the heavy smoke.

Do you have an evacuation plan? Just like you should have a plan for hurricanes and tornadoes, everyone should have a fire evacuation plan. And you should practice your plan! Make sure your boarders know what your rules are in the event of a fire and hold fire drills at least once a year.

What else can you do? I am all about prevention. I don’t ever want to have to live through the death or injury of my horse for something that I could have prevented.

If you are building a barn, use fire safe materials. For an existing barn, make any possible updates you can to make it safer. Just by following the above list will give you a huge lead on this. Brick or block barns and metal roofs are safer than wood barns, but you can paint your wood barn with 2 coats of fire retardant latex paint.

How many entrances are there to your barn? I have always preferred a barn that has exterior stall doors in addition to the interior doors. Have a place to remove the horses to. Loose horses will just run back into a burning barn.

And what do you do in the event of a fire?

Your first priority is to call 911. It takes just minutes for a barn to become fully engulfed. That doesn’t leave much time for rescuing horses. Horses that are easy to halter and lead, and have an exterior door to their stall, will have the greatest chance of being saved. Having halters and leads accessible will also mean the difference between life and death. It is a good idea to have extras of these at the entrance of the barn, or at the exterior stall doors. Even if you can locate the ones next to a stall door, chances are it is already engulfed in flames, or too hot to touch, so having spares will aid in the rescue tremendously.

If you are a boarder, you should choose a barn that places an emphasis on safety. I have walked into expensive boarding barns that had extension cords dangling right in front of a horses stall, within easy reach of his curious mouth. I have seen barns where the manure was dumped right outside of the barn (never mind the issue of fly control). Just because you don’t own your own place doesn’t mean you can’t keep your horse safe.

 There are several websites which will help you be fire smart. is an excellent site to start with.

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