Barn fire safety a year-round concern for horse people

Posted Jan. 20, 2012, at 4:41 p.m.

Each winter, the incidence of house fires increases with the use of wood stoves for heat, but a barn fire can happen any time of year. Disregarding arson, barn fires can be caused by lightning strikes, electrical problems, accidental sparking from cigarettes or machinery and combustion of poorly stored hay, among other agents. There are steps that can be taken to reduce the likelihood of a fire. However, even with all available deterrents in place, every barn should have a plan for evacuation should a fire occur.

Barns are basically boxes of tinder. With hay, wood shavings, wood construction, dust and electricity all in the same building, a barn is a fire waiting to happen. More luxurious barns may have sprinkler systems installed, but at the very least, a barn should have fire extinguishers in several locations as well as smoke alarms. A baby monitor can ensure that should a smoke alarm be triggered, someone will notice it.

Plugged-in devices should be kept to a minimum and unplugged when not in use, not just turned off. Fuse boxes, outlets and lights need to be kept free of cobwebs and dust and all light bulbs should be surrounded by a cage to keep them from coming in contact with anything incendiary. Smoking, or any other spark-creating activity such as leaf-burning, grilling or Independence Day sparkler flailing, should never be allowed in the vicinity of a barn. No matter how contained a recreational fire may seem, it only takes one wind gust to send sparks flying in all directions.

While not aesthetically pleasing, a strategically placed cinder block or concrete wall can be a life-saving fire block. Having a separate storage shed for motorized equipment and the combustible fluids needed to operate them also cuts down on fire risk. Rodent control may not seem like a fire deterrent, but not only do their nests pose a hazard, the animals themselves will chew wiring and create an opportunity for an electrical fire.

I had always been told that improperly cured hay can produce enough heat to start a fire but never was completely convinced until I had a load of hay delivered that had not been dried enough. The hay wasn’t put in the barn, thank goodness, but even having it outside the barn was worrisome once I realized just how hot it could get. As the hay fermented, it produced heat. Much like steam from a pot of boiling water can scald your hand, this hay was cooking away and having bare-handed contact with it for more than a few seconds was uncomfortable. I could easily understand how a barn fire could start from such a load of hay stored in a loft. Spontaneous combustion is no longer a Loch Ness Monster.

In some barns, horses wear their halters all the time in case of an emergency so that the animals can be quickly caught and led to safety. It’s not practical. It is very uncomfortable for a horse to wear its halter 24 hours a day and will cause friction rubs that leave permanent bald spots on its face. Not only that, but should a horse catch its halter on a bucket hook, or get its own hoof caught in it after scratching an itch, the halter (unless designed with a leather strap meant to give way) will not break in a struggle, but the horse’s neck or leg will. An alternative would be to teach your horse to lead with just a rope around its neck. In an emergency, it can be near impossible to get a terrified horse to stand still long enough to get a halter on its head, but you can almost always loop a lead rope over its neck and either give it a twist up over the nose or use it leash-like to move your horse to safety. I have taught several of my horses to lead by their manes or forelocks, but in a terror-inducing emergency, using a rope gives you a bit of space to stay out of a horse’s way as you lead it.

Giving thought to where a safety zone will be is something to be done ahead of the need. You cannot just turn horses loose from a burning barn and expect them to be safe. Panicked horses may run back into the building they consider home (even if it is aflame) or run into the road causing an accident and getting struck by a vehicle. Barn owners must have a plan in place for where horses can be quickly removed to in such a situation.

As much as our horses mean to us and as much as we love them, no one should risk his or her own life to try and rescue them from a burning building. If a fire is in its first stages and the roof and walls are not engulfed, then by all means, please get the horses out. Once the building is engulfed, the horses are most likely overcome by smoke at that point and the risk to your own life is too great.

Calm heads most certainly prevail in this situation so screaming and tearing around does no good at all. A 911 call should be the immediate response to a fire and then an evaluation as to whether it is feasible to get the horses out. Fire drills during school, while annoying or a relief depending on which class you were in, were a valuable precaution. A fire drill at the barn would save time and lives should there be an actual fire.

There is no absolute way to prevent a barn fire. Even the most state-of-the art barns have burned. Fire knows no economic boundaries. Just as no one can prevent accidents during any part of life no matter how prepared someone can be, emergencies can and will pounce at any time. The best we can do is to take away as many superfluous risks as possible and have a plan for when the pounce lands.

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