Silence erupts across the farm. The afternoon breeze falters, the sparrows go quiet and the typical hum of activity ceases. The air holds a feeling of distress, as if a storm is bound to make a thunderous appearance. But this storm holds no soothing rain. Within the barn walls, crimson flames begin to eat away at the timber frame. Smoke snakes through every crevice, pours along the aisles and through the stall windows. Shavings and bits of hay ignite, leaving ash and floating ember. Frightened horses snort, paw, pace. Flared nostrils find temporary solace in the clean air coming through small windows to the outside of the barn. As sirens scream in the distance, the chorus of distressed neighs echoes with urgency. . .
Barn fires. Every barn and horse owner’s worst fear. You’ve read the headlines, heard the stories and had the nightmares, but would you be ready in the case of your own emergency?
Noticing the Hazards
The next time you walk down your barn aisle, think about what you see. Box fans hang outside of every stall, filling up nearly every electrical outlet; extension cords in the tack room, feed room and aisleway; potentially fraying and exposed wiring running to bare lighting fixtures. While these features may seem ordinary enough, all are hazards that fall within the leading cause of barn fires: electrical issues.
“I’ve seen a couple barns catch fire because of fans that aren’t being kept up or taken care of and contain old, fraying wire,” said Walt Jeffers of Jeffers Insurance Agency, based in Red Lion, Pa.
Although a cost-effective approach to keeping the barn cool, the average box fan was not built to function properly under dusty conditions. With fans left running for most of the summer, dust and debris build up within the exposed motor, which can lead to overheating and burnout.
“If you’re not using a barn-rated fan with an enclosed motor, maybe you want to think twice about leaving it on when you’re not going to be home,” said Evie Hickman, president of Equine Rescue Ambulance, which provides rescue services for equine events around Maryland.
Along with fans are the cords they connect with and the outlets they’re plugged into. If too many things are running at once in the barn, it can overload the circuit and cause it to overheat. The same goes for extension cords, which run the risk of getting pinched or damaged while on the barn floor, or being overloaded by connecting too many appliances to them.
As for wiring, particularly in older barns, it is important to note where the wire is exposed and how it could be damaged, especially by rodents. They tend to gnaw on wire, which can cause electrical shorts and sparks that lead to fire.
“We had one incident that was a near miss, where a mouse chewed through Romex wiring. We couldn’t figure out why a light wouldn’t work so we took off some wall paneling and [found] a chewed-through wire with a blackened area. It looked like the fire just didn’t have enough oxygen to get started,” said Daniel Glick, co-founder of B&D Builders based in Paradise, Pa.
Heating appliances are also dangerous to have in the barn, especially if they’re near anything flammable, such as hay, straw, or shavings. In another instance experienced by Glick on a company project, an oats cooker overheating caused an entire barn to burn to the ground. Allowing smoking in or around the barn could be just as catastrophic.
Exposed light bulbs that hang low in the barn are at risk of exploding, either due to overheating or being knocked into, which could lead to fire and further injury from shattered glass.
All of these issues involving electricity, unfortunately, play hand-in-hand with the flammability of hay and bedding. While hay is typically a fuel source in the case of a barn fire, it can also be the igniter if susceptible to spontaneous combustion. Depending on the moisture content of the hay product, internal fire is a possibility.
“If it’s a small square bale, like what a lot of horses get fed, it should be at 20 percent moisture or less when it’s baled. If it’s a bigger hay bale it needs to be even lower than that, somewhere between 16 and 18 percent,” said Amanda Grev, a University of Maryland Extension specialist in pasture management for livestock operations.
Once the hay is baled, it goes through a sweating process to help dissipate the moisture, which causes a slight temperature increase before stabilizing and settling within the range of 12 to 15 percent moisture. When checking the internal temperature of a hay bale, anything less than roughly 130 degrees is typically minimal risk for spontaneous combustion. The range of 130-140 degrees is low risk, with 150-170 degrees a more moderate risk, and the 175-degree mark indicating that there’s imminent potential for fire and combustion. Anything above that is completely unsafe, as flammable gases are produced and will ignite when they come into contact with the air.
The way hay is arranged also adds to the danger. “The bigger you make your [hay] stack, the smaller your surface area is and the higher the volume deep inside that stack is. This makes it harder for that moisture or heat to leave that stack and that’s when you can have [spontaneous combustion],” Grev said.
Tightly packed, denser bales have an increased risk of combustion, while the smaller, more loosely packed bales allow the heat to dissipate and lower the risk. However, advancement in baling technology allows hay producers to know what the moisture content of the hay crop is when it’s being baled. Though the hay that arrives in your barn may have a lower risk of spontaneously combusting, it’s important to understand the process. The flammability of the hay product if it were to be near any source of heat, remains extremely dangerous.
While having a hay loft above the barn is convenient, it isn’t necessarily the safest location to store hay. Storage of hay in the barn contributes to the spread of dirt, dust, and hay particles, which are flammable hazards. Issues can also arise from a build-up of cobwebs and birds nesting in the barn.
Prevention: From the Ground Up
Whether planning to build a new barn or renovating an old barn, a simple layout is key. Not only does this improve accessibility, usability and organization, but it allows anyone to walk into the barn and immediately understand the points of entry and exit. It is also important to consider the layout of your entire property, particularly looking at factors such as proximity to the road, other buildings and water sources.
When it comes to building material, concrete block is virtually fireproof. Older barns made out of concrete block can also be the easiest to renovate, normally just requiring a fresh coat of paint, a new roof and exterior doors. If a barn owner wants to maintain the original appearance of the barn, it’s possible to pour a concrete floor that serves as a lid while simultaneously preserving the original floor.
“We’ll have instances where we’ll put block walls in. [At a barn] we’re working on in New Jersey right now, we have a large block wall separating the barn from the arena. In case the arena were to ever catch fire, it wouldn’t transfer to the barn,” said Glick.
However, barns with a wooden-frame structure tend to be more economically friendly to a barn owner’s budget and can still be designed in a safe manner. “Frame it in a way that’s as simple as possible so there aren’t a lot of trusses or crawl spaces to collect dust and cobwebs,” said John Blackburn, president and senior principal of Blackburn Architects, P.C., based in Washington, D.C.
Another key factor to consider is hay and bedding storage. Blackburn and Glick both emphasized the importance of having a separate structure to house hay and bedding, outside of the barn. If a hay loft is absolutely necessary, it should be isolated and ideally surrounded by concrete blocks or some other form of fireproof material.
“We recommend that you have a hay barn to store it on the farm separately and that you bring enough into the barn for your own convenience and ease of handling, usually about a week’s worth of hay and bedding, and store that in a method that’s basically fireproof if you can,” said Blackburn.
The choice of doors, inside and outside of the barn, can have a major effect on the ease of daily use and evacuation in case of an emergency. For the inside stall doors, sliding doors are recommended over hinge doors, as they are easy to slide and keep open. Hinge doors require a latch to keep them open, and if they aren’t latched, have the potential to swing shut.
For the outside of the barn, Blackburn recommends dutch doors. “It gives an aesthetic appearance which I always think is nice. It also allows better light and ventilation into the stall, and provides a way for horses to get out of the barn in case there is a fire,” he said. “I have seen a fire where a horse has gotten stuck in a 2-foot by 2-foot window and died, and it’s the worst thing you can see.” Overall, any sort of opening a horse could have the ability to fit through is the best option for the outside of the barn.
Natural light and ventilation is emphasized in all of Blackburn’s designs, including the one his team completed for Sagamore Farm in Glyndon, Md. “At Sagamore, we have a skylight running down the ridge of the roof and it actually runs over the storage area where the hay is kept. Having that skylight allows you to see in those rooms without having a light,” he said.
And how does one get around the need for box fans? Blackburn recommends a caged fan high on the wall above the stall, which brings in air from the eve, pushes it down on the horse and then allows it to vacate through the ridge of the roof. “It’s a natural movement of air, which is better by far than a box fan, which is basically taking air from one stall to another and circulating hay, mold and dust through the barn.”
Other fireproofing methods, explained by Glick, include having two layers of drywall between the upstairs and downstairs of a barn. “If a fire were to start downstairs, it wouldn’t go upstairs, and vice versa,” he said.
A current B&D Builders project involves the installation of teardrop doors with fusion links at every critical opening. In a fire, the fusion link would melt away and allow the door to slowly drop down, smothering the fire in that area. Sprinkler systems are also available for barns, but the cost tends to fall outside of an average barn owner’s budget.
When it comes to preventing electrical issues, it is important to have a certified electrician install your electrical wiring within metal conduit. This not only ensures that the wiring is correctly installed, but that it’s safe and protected from outside sources such as weather and rodents. Light fixtures should all be installed outside of the reach of horses and stored within explosion-proof cages.
Have you ever tried putting on thick, fire-resistant gloves and attempted to open a stall door? Or timed yourself to see how quickly you could get all of your horses out of the barn and safely into nearby paddocks?
While these may seem like silly practices out of context, when it comes to barn fires and the limited amount of time to attempt a rescue, preparedness is key. This not only applies to barn owners, but the horses as well.
“Every barn is different, so you have to figure out what works best for you,” said Hickman, who has completed the Technical Large Animal Emergency Rescue training and participated in other local barn fire safety seminars.
During one of her training experiences, Hickman and her partner were sent into a barn fire simulation and instructed to get six horses out of the barn. After putting a halter on each one and leading them out, she said that it took about five minutes, and that the barn likely would have been down by then.
Accounting for time and the intensity of the situation, it brings to mind a few questions. Are your horses wearing halters when they’re in stalls? If they aren’t, where are their halters? How easy is your horse to catch in the stall and bring out?
A horse’s halter or lead rope should always be close to its stall when planning for a quick evacuation. Horse owners can also make emergency halters out of rope, which can be kept in their home or in their vehicle for easy access on their way to the barn. Working with your horse in the stall, focusing on behavior and manners when entering and exiting, can go a long way in preparing them to come out in case of an emergency. This also eases the tension if they were to be removed by someone with less horse experience.
“When I went into one of the stalls [during training], the horse had its hind-end to me and wouldn’t turn around. I said, ‘Come on,’ and it still didn’t turn around, so I moved on and went to the next horse,” said Hickman. “I can’t spend a lot of time messing with a horse that doesn’t want to come out when the barn might come down on my head.”
While it’s a myth that you need to blindfold a horse to lead them out of a burning barn, Hickman emphasized how important it is to identify paddocks that are close by to put the horse in, in order to prevent them from running out and back into the barn. The paddocks should also be large enough that horses can run away from the embers to avoid being burnt.
Having a map of where horses are in the barn, while also maintaining a list of horses off the property each day, is crucial when planning. If your barn isn’t full, consider keeping the horses closer to one side of the barn or the other, so you know which end to take them out of. Identifying a plan of escape for people is also important. Try to establish where everyone would meet, which horses they would be responsible for securing, and how everyone would be accounted for.
“Anything like that, that has the scene more settled before we get there, is going to be a big help,” said Kevin Nace, a Maryland firefighter of 33 years and training coordinator for Equine Rescue Ambulance.
And though the can of hoof oil sitting outside of your horse’s stall door may seem harmless, it’s actually flammable and could add fuel to a barn fire. It’s recommended that you identify all of your flammable liquids and store them safely in one central location, preferably outside the barn. You should also take inventory of the grooming supplies, tack pieces, medical supplies, equipment and other items that reside in your barn. This not only helps for sake of organization, but is important if you were to deal with the aftermath of a barn fire and had to identify what was lost.
“[Most people] underestimate taking the time to figure out what they own, especially when it comes to the contents inside their barn,” said Jeffers. “Settling a claim on a stable, a barn or a run-in is very easy because you just account for the square footage, the height and the materials it was made out of. But when you get down to all of the tack and related equipment that you could pick up and take away, it becomes an endless amount of items that people forget about and lose track of.”
Barn owners should also look into insurance for structures on their farm, as coverage options can vary depending on the age and upkeep of the barn. According to Jeffers, there are three categories, or perils, when it comes to coverage.
“The basic peril covers fire, lightning, windstorms, hail, explosions, riots and civil commotion. The premiums are a little less, but this peril is very limited,” he said. “The next group includes all of that but also adds some things like the collapse of the building due to the weight of ice and snow and incidents involving falling objects. That’s much better and the next available [option] for the newer structures. The next group is called special perils and pretty much covers everything with certain exclusions, which is where you see more issues of questionable losses arise.”
Equine insurance with coverage options including full mortality and theft, major medical and loss of use may also be available.
You should also consider how a firefighter would move around the scene and handle the horses. If possible, test how easy it is to open your stall doors or slip a halter on a horse while wearing thick, fireproof gloves. Evaluate your horse’s reaction to someone wearing a full suit of protective gear, including a mask that enhances the sound of their voice and intensity of their breathing. The horse’s behavior could have a huge impact on the outcome of an evacuation.
Outside of the physical preparedness, general housekeeping goes a long way. De-cobweb your barn on a regular basis, keep the aisles free from dust and hay, avoid clutter, and store farm implements, such as tractors and fuel tanks, away from the barn. Fire extinguishers should be serviced regularly and kept in a central location for easy access.
First Responder Perspective
According to Nace, the fire department’s biggest concern when it comes to responding to barn fires is identifying a nearby water source.
“The majority of barns are in rural areas without an established public water supply. [We know] we’re going to run out of water quickly depending on the amount of fire,” said Nace.
As they head to the scene, advanced technology in their vehicles allows them to identify the local water sources, whether they’re streams, ponds or underground tanks that are there for their use.
Once the fire department has arrived, the number one goal is ensuring life safety of the crew and the other people. Though many horse owners consider their four-legged friends to be members of the family, the firefighters will prioritize rescuing people over animals.
“Not to sound uncaring, but I’m not going to send someone into an unsafe condition to save a dog or a horse, where we might do the same entry to save a person,” said Nace.
The barn owner should be able to tell the firefighters if there are any people inside the barn, how many horses are in the barn, and what items in the barn may be flammable and have potential to explode or further fuel the flames. The location of things such as the electrical box, hot water heater or even the mechanism to control things like a fly spray system should be pointed out, as shutting off these could help prevent further issues.
After addressing life safety and attempting rescue, if it’s necessary, the firefighters will make an assessment of whether the barn is saveable. “If it’s too far gone and [we know] we’re not going to make a difference, our priorities may shift to exposures,” said Nace. “If we’ve got buildings that are close by that we can protect with our water supply, our priorities move to property protection, [where we] protect the exposures that are at risk due to fire.”
The unfortunate reality of emergency response to barn fires is that many firefighters have had no experience with horses or an emergency involving horses. When it comes to calls that they respond to regularly, such as medical emergencies and fire alarms, they are considered high-frequency, low-risk. But when it comes to barn fires with animals, rather than just hay barns or other burning structures, they are low-frequency, high-risk.
“I’m involved with the Equine Rescue Ambulance, so other than training and personal knowledge because I’ve been around horses, I’ve had no formal training in my career as far as what to do to deal with animals at a barn fire,” said Nace. “As far as getting animals out of buildings, there are very few people in the fire department that have had any training or experience dealing with those types of things.”
Bridging the Gap
The best thing a barn owner can do is identify the local fire departments and make an effort to form a relationship. Just like you’re seeking assistance in learning about and implementing the best methods to fireproof your barn, the fire department is seeking new opportunities to train members.
“Involving the fire department is a really good idea because they can help you see things you haven’t,” said Hickman.
Invite members of your local fire department to your farm and show them around, allowing them to see the entirety of the property and the ins and outs of your barn. This helps them understand the layout in case they ever respond to a call on your farm, while also giving them the opportunity to be around horses.
Without developing experience with horses and other large animals, firefighters are limited in their ability to assist in rescuing them. It’s up to the horse community to partner up and offer seminars for first responders, to teach them basic horsemanship, horse handling, and overall better preparedness for dealing with a frightened prey animal during a barn fire.
Hickman and Nace’s Equine Rescue Ambulance team, which recently received a grant from the Maryland Horse Council, plans to establish a state-wide group of volunteers to offer educational and training seminars about topics such as general equine rescue, trailer safety and barn-fire safety. They work closely with the Baltimore and Harford county fire departments, but hope to establish more connections with other fire departments across the state.
“With everything being budget-driven, it’s tough enough getting the funding to do people rescue training and a lot of people may think [training with] horses isn’t a priority,” said Nace. “It has to be pushed by the horse industry to get the word out. If you have an organization that you can invite the fire department to, to learn a little bit more, it’s definitely something that’s needed.”