The following steps have been designed to help you reduce the chances of a possible tragedy.
On a warm summer night, several years ago, an old barn located near my home lit up the evening sky in flames. Two horses inside the barn managed to escape, while a third perished in the fire. Although I was a child, at the time, I can still vividly remember the sights and sounds of that night including the poignant sadness that permeated our entire community. I never learned the cause of the fire, but I did learn an important lesson, which is that all your dreams can be reduced to a pile of ashes, and lost forever, within a matter of minutes.
It’s a sad but true fact that even if you are close by when a fire breaks out in a barn, it may already be too late to save any of the animals that are inside the barn. A barn fire can reduce the entire building and its contents to ashes in less than fifteen minutes, but asphyxiation from smoke and toxic fumes will likely kill any occupants, within the barn, before the flames reach them. That’s why it is essential to PREVENT barn fires! While many of us understand the basics of fire safety, now is the time to inspect your barn for any potential fire hazards and eliminate them.
The first thing to remember is that fire is an event rather than an object. Fire doesn’t just exist. It needs three main elements (ingredients) to ignite and then continue to burn.
- Heat – is needed to ignite a fire. It is also needed to maintain the fire and enables the fire to spread.
- Fuel – is any combustible material such as bedding, feed, hay, etc. Heat “feeds” the fire.
- Oxygen – Without oxygen, you can’t have a fire. It’s essential for the chemical processes that occurs during any type of fire. The oxygen reacts with the burning “fuel” in the surrounding air that, in turn, generates combustion products such as gases, smoke, embers, etc. Air contains about 21% oxygen, but most fires require only about 16% oxygen in order to burn.
So, while a well-provisioned, well-ventilated barn is a positive environment for your animals, it can also be the perfect recipe for an unstoppable fire, providing enough amounts of fuel and airflow to develop into a raging, deadly inferno within minutes.
Your primary goal is to PREVENT a fire from starting by eliminating the risks associated with ignition and combustion. But if a fire should happen to start, your goal is to stop it from spreading and quickly get it extinguished. The actions you take today can provide you with the potential to not only save property, but lives as well.
Eliminate Potential Barn Fire Ignition Sources
A single ember from a cigarette is enough to ignite a tiny piece of hay or straw, which is all that is needed to start a fire. Barns and other out-buildings should have a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to smoking anywhere in or around them – and that pertains to family, friends, and workers. NO EXCEPTIONS! For added safety, prominently post no smoking signs in and around all areas of your property to be covered. This applies to any sources of open flames such as candles, lanterns, etc.
Remember that “fuel” can take on many forms.
Common contents in any barn such as hay, dust on the floor, and cobwebs climbing up the walls can create pathways that allow fire to travel quickly throughout the barn. While it is neither essential nor practical to have a spotless barn, the cleaner your barn is, the safer it will be. Remove cobwebs and sweep out dust on a regular basis. When you think of dust, think of it as a combustible fuel that will allow fire to quickly spread. Finally, pay special attention when dusting to fluorescent light bulbs, electrical outlets, and incandescent bulbs. Electrical outlets made for outdoor use with covers are a good option you may want to consider in helping to keep dirt and dust out of your outlets.
Flammable liquids such as gasoline, motor oil, and propane should never be stored in a barn, even on a temporary basis. Also remember that some alcohol-based medications and hoof paints may become flammable in certain situations. Take the time to investigate the products that are in your barn, read all labels, and be sure you follow specific manufacturer instructions before storing. In addition, you may want to examine the expiration dates on each item and dispose of anything that has expired. Something as simple as an ointment that has been laying around for a few years has the ability for its chemicals to change and become much more dangerous. When dealing with chemicals, remember that anything can become a hazardous material.
Clutter is another form of “fuel” for a barn fire. Worn out blankets, broken equipment, and random pieces of junk can all create the opportunity for a perfect firestorm. If your barn is full of clutter, it is time to reorganize or trash. Equipment and items that are good, but no longer in use, can be donated to local rescue shelters. If you don’t use it, and no one else needs it, or wants it – trash it. And consider using a different building in which to store miscellaneous household goods or tools, especially anything flammable.
Piles of towels or rags that have been soaked in oil-based liquids and tossed in a pile, can easily self-ignite if the temperature is high enough. Linseed oil, which is commonly used as a leather conditioner or varnish, is one of the main culprits found in barns, but not the only culprit. If you use a rag with a flammable liquid near your barn, it’s a good idea to first hang it out to dry. Once dry, place the rag into a sealed metal container, and remove it to the outside, far away from any structures.
Hay should be stored away from the main barn. When hay is not properly dried before it is baled and stored, there is a good chance for spontaneous combustion to occur. The reaction occurs in the center of the bale, where heat and moisture are under constant pressure. Once the temperature in the center of the hay bale exceeds 130°F, chemical reactions will occur in which gases are produced that become flammable upon contact with the air. Predictably, the risk is much greater during hot, humid weather and generally occurs within one or two months after the hay has been harvested.
Spontaneous combustion is not as rare as you might think, leading some to justify building a separate structure adequately away from your main barn where horses or other livestock are kept. Condensation on the ceiling, walls and/or windows, as well as a musty odor may be signs that the hay is overheating.
But what should you do if you suspect your hay is overheating? REMEMBER that oxygen is one of the three key elements that fire needs to ignite and grow. The sudden introduction of air could trigger the ignition of any hot gases that may exist deep inside the hay. Therefore, don’t attempt to remove any bales of hay at this point in time. Likewise, we don’t recommend you attempt to walk on the top of the hay, which may unintentionally disrupt any spots that may already be smoldering. While it is possible to determine the temperature of the hay with the use of a proper temperature probe, or other “home-made” methods, if you suspect that your hay may be overheating, contact a professional for advice who is independent of your hay source, such as a trusted veterinarian, or your fire department.
Inspect Electrical Wiring
While having all new wiring installed inside your existing barn can be expensive, it is well worth it, as many building fires are due to faulty or frayed wiring, especially in older buildings. Any new electrical wiring should be enclosed in corrosion-free, industrial conduits to protect from chewing rodents, and securely fastened to prevent livestock from tearing them loose.
If you’re unable to upgrade the wiring in your barn, be sure that it is inspected periodically, by a licensed electrician, for any signs of wear and tear or damage. If you haven’t already done so, it is also a good idea to have a master switch fitted in your home or another building that allows for complete shutdown of all power to the barn in the case of an emergency. And while you’re at it, make sure that there are protective cages fitted over all light bulbs.
Unplug Unused Appliances
Don’t leave electrical appliances or devices unattended in your barn or out-buildings and unplug them when they are not in use. Likewise, extension cords should be rolled up and stored when not being used. Devices that are often left on for long periods such as heat lamps or portable heating units can quickly cause a fire. If you must use such devices, use them sparingly and keep an eye on them.
Clear Aisles and Doorways
Unencumbered movement/travel is essential for the evacuation of people and animals out of a burning barn, as well as providing access to the fire for firefighters and needed emergency personnel and equipment. Be sure that all buckets, tools, wheel barrels, and other items are not blocking aisles, doorways, or exits – EVER! Once a fire starts, you will NOT have time to clear a path for you or your animals. Regardless of the flames, choking smoke will fill a burning barn within minutes, making evacuation or entry to the barn impossible without breathing apparatus. Keep any unused tools and equipment in proper storage and park any vehicles well away from the barn doors to ensure that emergency vehicles have close and easy access to the fire.
Create a Ready Water Supply
One of the most ideal solutions for firefighters is a fire hydrant that is linked to the municipal supply line. Unfortunately, responding fire trucks in many rural locations will need an alternative source of water since most rural homesteads will not be linked to city water lines.
If you have any natural body of water on the property, consider installing a dry hydrant-pipe. This will be a massive help to the fire department, allowing them to pull water directly from the water source through a connection installed nearer to your structures.
If there is not a natural water source on the farm property, make sure that you have at least two ordinary garden hoses installed along the barn – one on each side – in case one is unavailable due to the fire. If both are operable and able to hit the fire from both sides of the barn, the potential for knocking down the fire in time to really make a difference is greatly enhanced. This simple precaution may be your first line of defense in saving your horses and your barn. In some cases, it may be your only line of defense.
For the ultimate in fire protection, although not yet common in most barns, you might want to consider making an investment in the installation of an automatic sprinkler system. Unlike smoke detectors that only sound an alarm, a sprinkler system can activate an automatic spray of water at the first sign of a fire, perhaps extinguishing it well before any serious damage is done. It is definitely a long-term investment and there are currently no codes or laws requiring sprinkler systems in barns, but it could be an excellent “insurance policy” for your peace of mind, property, and livestock.
But fire protection isn’t limited to just the contents of your barn. Here are a few suggestions for making the exterior of your barn just as safe as its interior.
Installation of a Lightning Rod
Lightning rods are metal structures placed on the top of your barn for the purpose of intercepting and diverting the electricity, from a lightning strike, away from your flammable barn; redirecting it into the ground through a system of cables and wires, where it will safely dissipate. Regardless of what you may have heard, lightning rods do not attract lightning, but they can be invaluable weapons in helping to prevent fires and structural damage caused by lightning strikes.
Use Fire Resistant or Retardant Paints and Varnishes
There is a wide variety of products available such as interior and exterior paints, varnishes, and other additives that may not prevent a fire from starting, but should retard or slow the spread of fire to provide additional escape time. These flame resistant/retardant products are generally available in a variety of colors and finishes for an eye-pleasing experience, but they will also do an incredible job at helping to slow down the spread of fire. But take your time and special care to choose the correct product for the surface (i.e. metal, wood, concrete, etc.) and always provide proper application.
The Use of Non-Flammable Materials While Building or Remodeling
If you are considering building a new barn or remodeling an existing structure, there are a wide variety of materials that can be used today that are considerably less flammable than wood and equally acceptable for any type of climate and budget. If you do build or remodel with wood, it is best to consider using lumber that has been treated with a fire retardant chemical. As a reminder, fire retardant materials will burn, but at a much slower rate than conventional, non-treated lumber. For some extra peace of mind, prior to any new build or remodeling project, consult with experts such as the National Fire Protection Association for a full listing of codes and guidelines for safe animal housing.
Handheld fire extinguishers are an excellent tool to prevent a small fire from becoming a large one, but it’s IMPORTANT to remember that even if you have more than enough of the best and most expensive extinguishers, on the market, in your barn – they won’t matter one bit if they are inoperable, for whatever reason, the second you need them.
When choosing a fire extinguisher:
- Consider those that are rated type ABC, which can be used on liquid, wood, and electrical fires.
- They should be mounted in the tack room, as well as next to each door.
- All fire extinguishers should be checked at least once or twice a year to ensure that they are fully operable and have not expired.
- Make sure that anyone in and around your barn, including workers, have been thoroughly trained in the use of each fire extinguisher.
Flame Resistant Landscaping
So far, we’ve been discussing fires that may originate in your barn or from lightning, but what about fire that is threatening your barn from an external source such as a wildfire or a nearby existing structure fire? There are additional measures that can be taken to help reduce the risk of fire reaching your barn from an external source other than keeping your grass short around the barn and keeping all shrubs and trees neatly pruned.
For instance, did you know that although there are no known plants that are 100 percent fireproof, there are flame-resistant varieties of plants and other vegetation? Begin by examining surrounding plants/vegetation and replacing any that are flammable with flame resistant varieties, such as succulents and many deciduous trees and shrubs that will not burn as quickly as others.
Fire resistant plants maintain a high quantity of water within the leaves, have watery, free-flowing sap, and typically do not accumulate dead branches, needles, or leaves. On the other hand, highly flammable plants tend to retain their foliage, needles, or dead twigs. They may also contain rather volatile oils within the bark or leaves and have sticky sap. With so many varieties of plants, shrubs, and trees from which to choose, it might be a good idea to first consult with local landscaping experts and/or your local fire safety agency for your best options in fire-resistant landscaping projects.
Another safety measure is to create three separate landscaping zones, each one about 30 to 50 feet wide, and each being kept well-watered and free of any dead leaves or debris.
- Zone 1 (inner) – the ground immediately surrounding the barn should be covered with gravel or stone pavers and perhaps just a few ground-cover plants.
- Zone 2 (middle) – might include rock walls or fire resistant plants that don’t grow very high and remain rather green throughout most of the four seasons.
- Zone 3 (outer) – might include tall shrubs or small trees, making sure that lower limbs are trimmed in order to prevent any fire from crawling up the tree trunks.
But you’re not done yet. Once you’ve assessed your fire prevention status and made any and all necessary changes or updates, give your local fire department a call and ask them to inspect your barn and property. They should be able to identify any hazards that you may have overlooked, offer evacuation plans for humans and animals alike, or simply provide suggestions to further enhance your fire safety situation. Finally, fire personnel will be able to help you create a pre-fire plan that will offer details of the property and any structures on the property that will allow them to be better prepared in the event of an emergency.
Should you ever see a fire in your barn:
- Call 9-1-1 immediately!
- Evacuate horses and other livestock, but ONLY if you can do so safely.
- If it’s a small fire, and ONLY if you can do so safely, get some water on the fire, or attempt to otherwise contain or extinguish the fire.
- Open all gates to the property.
- Move any vehicles away from the barn to provide closer access for emergency personnel and vehicles.
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