Fire Prevention Inside Your Barn

Fire prevention, for the most part, consists of practices, that is, the things we do on a day-to-day basis to maintain a fire-safe building.  Knowing fire propagation requirements will help you to keep an eye out for possible hazards. Throughout this website, fire prevention is the main focus in each of my articles and in most of the contributed articles. Here are two more, and perhaps they could be considered the most important.

Good Housekeeping. A broom and a rake are the two best fire prevention tools a barn owner can have. Keeping your barn clean might circumvent a tragedy. For example, a piece of glass resting on a dusty window ledge that’s hit by the afternoon sun, may cause a fire. By making sure the glass is in the trash can and the window ledge is dust-free, you have successfully prevented the possibily of thousands of dollars of property loss and the hearbreak of losing your animals. So, I’ll say it again: the best way to protect your animals and property is by maintaining a clean barn, something which requires minimal daily effort. Here’s what you can do:

  • Keep doorways and aisleways unobstructed
  • Sweep up loose hay, straw, wood shavings
  • Place trash in metal trash cans with snugly fitting lids
  • Do not permit dust to accumulate on shelves or ledges
  • Get rid of cobwebs

I know that cobwebs are the bane of every barn owner, but dust collects on cobwebs, and the cobwebs then provide excellent pathways along which flame can travel–so quickly that in seconds a fire can spread from one end of the barn to the other. In addition, flaming pieces of cobwebs falling onto bedding will start new fires.

No SmokingThe No Smoking/No Open Flame Rule. The most common source of heat is an open flame–a match.  Stringently enforce the No Smoking Rule, not just by posting signs, but by firmly telling a smoker to refrain.  There’s a “code” that’s come down through the years which implies that a horse owner can smoke in his or her own barn, but not in someone else’s.  Perhaps this “code” evolved because a horse owner supposedly knew the “safe” areas in his or her barn.  However it came about, the “code” is not only dangerous, it’s absurd.

Some offenders need to be threatened before they’ll obey; if you find yourself in a situation such as this, seriously consider how much risk you’re willing to take to keep the peace.  A person willfully violating the No Smoking Rule is not someone you want around your barn.  They not only jeopardize the safety of the animals, they can be responsible for the injury or death of other people in your barn.  Their smoking in your barn, by the way, could also invalidate your insurance policy.  So, lay it on the line if you have to: either the smoking materials go, or the violator goes.  And, if you issue the ultimatum, follow through!

If you are boarding your horse in a barn where smoking is a problem, look around for a new facility. Even if you find one without all the amenities of your current barn, if they value fire and other safety practices, that’s where your horse is best protected.  Don’t forget for one minute that  there are no safe smoking areas in or near a barn.

Open flames are not only a problem with smokers.  I know of a barn that has individual water pipes to each stall.  In wintertime, some of the water spigots at the stalls ice up, making it difficult or impossible to open the spigot.  Up until a few years ago the owner would thaw the troublesome spigots with a disposable lighter.  It took only a few seconds per stall to thaw the spigots, so the owner didn’t consider the lighter to be a hazard.  One freezing morning the owner was thawing a spigot when the horse in the stall suddenly put his nose up to the lighter.  He jerked away quickly, but the hay hanging from his mouth ignited.  He dropped the mouthful, which fell onto the hay flake at his feet, igniting that.  Fortunately, the hay was close to the newly-filled water bucket.  Dumping the water on the hay extinguished the fire, but the heart-stopping experience was a forceful lesson for the owner, who has not used a lighter in the barn since that incident.

In 1958, when I was a student at Ohio University, I boarded my horse, Sunny, at the Athens County Fairgrounds in one of the stalls leased by Red Currens, a harness horse owner and trainer.  The wooden shed row barns were so old (probably built in the early to mid-1800s) that every now and then a board would drop off when the old square nails finally rusted through.  Two stalls down from Sunny’s stall, a stall was completely enclosed (not fire-proofed, just enclosed floor to ceiling with boards) for use as a “day room” for the trainers and grooms.   In the center of this “room” was a pot-bellied stove, that during the winter months was kept constantly stoked so the black metal appeared maroon from being continuously hot.

In addition to the danger from the pot-bellied stove, Kentucky bourban and Ohio moonshine were always on hand and more than one person was always half-sloshed on the stuff.  Every now and then they would amble off to clean a stall or two, and looking back I’m amazed that the horses were not (to my knowledge) accidentally speared or stabbed by those inebriated grooms.  Back then our manure forks were steel with sharp points on the tines; I don’t think it’s as easy to hurt a horse with our plastic-tined forks, although I wouldn’t want anyone to try an experiment.  But, from a fire safety standpoint, the pot-bellied stove was a tragedy waiting to happen, and coupled with our moonshine-filled grooms and trainers, it’s a miracle that those barns survived winter after winter.  What scares me now is the potential peril in which I placed Sunny.

So, my lesson learned in retrospect, beside not permitting the installation of wood or coal burning stoves in your barn, is that you don’t want intoxicated people in your barn any more than you want smokers in your barn. I can’t begin to imagine how anyone who could barely stagger from their booze intake would have been able to evacuate those barns. Sunny and the other horses were just plain lucky.

One last “inside the barn” safety measure: post a sign outside your barn stating how many horses and/or other animals are in stalls and pens, and don’t forget to include your “free-ranging” barn dog(s) and cat(s). Also give a copy of this information to your fire department when they do a preplan of your property.