No barn is fireproof, but these steps can help minimize your farm’s risk.

It is a horrific sight: a barn engulfed in flames with terrified horses plunging about inside. It happens time and again at farms and racetracks across the country.

Can barn fires be prevented? Yes, according to extension agents at Pennsylvania State University and other institutions. Basically, they say, no building is completely fireproof, but farm owners and managers can take certain steps to minimize the chances of a fire occurring.

Causes of Barn Fires

There is an old saying that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. However, with barn fires there almost never is a “cure.” Once flames are spotted, it is usually too late. Only if a fire is discovered in the smoldering (burning without flame) stage–which can last a minute or hours–is there a chance to effectively put it out.

Barns normally are loaded with dry, flammable materials such as bedding, hay, grain, and wood. When these materials ignite, they burn with savage intensity. Liquid fuel sources found in barns include alcohol, liniment, hoof paints, and creosote, among others.

While careless smoking and poor electrical connections are leading causes of barn fires, bacterial and chemical reactions, such as those that occur in recently baled hay, can also be culprits. A case in point involved a 2007 fire that killed seven horses at a Saddlebred stable in rural Minnesota, despite the best efforts of five fire departments. It is believed, according to news reports, that the fire originated in a load of hay that had been delivered to the barn that morning. The fire started in the afternoon.

Underlining the point that once a barn fire starts it is almost impossible to put out, a fire chief at the scene was quoted saying that 130,000 gallons of water were used to fight the flames, but the barn could not be saved. “That’s the most (water) I’ve ever known that we’ve used in my 24 years of firefighting,” he told the local newspaper.

While the loss of horses in this fire was devastating, it could have been worse. There were 45 horses in the barn at the time, but neighbors and farm employees were able to lead most of them to safety. A stroke of good fortune resulted from the presence of a veterinarian at the farm when the fire broke out. She was immediately able to treat horses that were injured or in shock.

Fires that erupt in a horse’s box stall might be the fastest-spreading. Penn State extension agents explained the process in one of their bulletins: “Protecting a horse stall is not the same as protecting a home. The horse is standing in dry bedding material that is very flammable. Straw reaches a burning temperature of 300°F in one to five minutes, and it generates as much heat at the same rate as gasoline. All that is required to start this fire is a spark or match. It takes two to three minutes for a straw fire to burn an area 10 feet in diameter. Compare this to the size of a common horse box stall that is 10 to 12 feet square. After a fire starts in a stall and spreads to only four feet in diameter, most horses are injured. By a six-foot diameter (fire), (the horse’s) lungs are seared. With an eight-foot diameter fire, the horse will start to suffocate. By 10 feet, the horse is dead. All of this occurs in two to three minutes. If a horse is to survive unharmed, he must be removed from the stall within 30 seconds.”

Hence, while a quick rescue is key, fire prevention is far more effective and less costly.

Prevention Tips

There are some obvious fire prevention steps that every barn owner can take. For instance, every barn should have a strictly enforced no smoking rule. A qualified electrician should routinely (at least annually) inspect any electrical appliances installed in the barn, such as water heaters, pipe-heating tape, insect-control devices, and portable heating units. Enclose all electrical wiring in metal or PVC conduit, and disconnect and store all radios, clippers, extension cords, and similar portable electrical appliances when not in use.

As mentioned earlier, investigators believed that newly delivered hay was the source of the Minnesota fire. This is a fire source that is unique to the agricultural industry, arising from damp, incompletely cured (dried) hay. According to a pamphlet from the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), heat is generated by the bacterial reaction during the curing process, which begins while the hay is on the ground prior to baling. The moist interior of the hay might smolder unnoticed for some time before the edge of the stack is reached and spontaneous combustion ensues.

According to extension agents, most barn fires that start from overheated hay occur within six weeks of baling. They also say to avoid this overheating the ideal moisture range for hay at baling time is 15-18% (with many in the industry recommending not baling hay with moisture content greater than 16.5%). Plant respiration continues after baling and generates a small amount of heat even under the best of conditions, but heat is normal and inconsequential unless it reaches very high temperatures.

Barn owners can measure the heat of baled hay by inserting a temperature probe (which is longer and will provide a more accurate reading than a thermometer) into individual bales.

Penn State extension agents say that if the temperature of the hay has reached 150°F, it likely will continue to rise. If the probe records 175-190°, that bale of hay is about to burst into flame, and you should call the fire department immediately.

They also recommend that owners stack hay bales on their sides to allow convection ventilation of warm, moist air up and out of the bale. The greener the hay, the looser it should be stacked to allow cooling and curing without danger of combustion or mildew formation. Inspect newly baled hay on a regular basis until curing is complete (typically within a few weeks).

An obvious practice aimed at preventing horse barn fires caused by hot hay is to store the hay in a shed separate from the barn.

The best way to prevent barn fires in general, say extension agents, is to minimize fuel sources. They offer farm owners the following suggestions:

  • Keep grass mowed and control weeds, brush, and debris around the stable area not only to improve aesthetics but also to eliminate a frequently overlooked fuel source–dried plant material.
  • Remove less-frequently used combustibles from the stable. Store all combustibles properly and be sure to provide appropriate receptacles to dispose of rags soiled with combustibles.
  • Keep the barn clean and free of cobwebs, chaff, dust, and loose straw and hay, which are all easily combustible and make excellent fuel sources.
  • Ignition sources include the obvious cigarettes and heaters as well as those not-so-obvious, such as machinery exhaust systems. Trucks driven into hay/bedding storage areas have been known to ignite materials in contact with the hot exhaust and catalytic converters.
  • Space heaters should only be used according to manufacturers’ guidelines and should not be left unattended.
  • Post and enforce a no smoking policy. All smoking should be banned from the barn and immediate premises.

Don’t forget to take fire prevention steps beyond barn walls. Park gasoline- and diesel-powered vehicles away from the barn, and perform regular maintenance to avoid any problems with fuel or exhaust systems. If you need to refuel on-site, do so as far away from the barn as possible, as escaping gasoline vapors readily ignite.

Alert/Prevention Devices

We noted earlier that some fires smolder for varying lengths of time before erupting into flames. Thus, barns should be equipped with smoke detectors to provide early detection. But according to the HSUS, most residential and commercial smoke detectors aren’t as effective in barns due to dust that clogs the mechanisms. Contact a company that specializes in optical smoke detection systems for barns. Heat detectors might be useful in conjunction with smoke detectors, particularly in enclosed spaces such as tack, feed, and utility rooms.

Once you detect a smoldering pile of hay or bedding, extinguish it immediately. This means portable, multipurpose ABC type fire extinguishers should be readily available inside the barn. In large barns extension agents advise you to place extinguishers in easily reached, visible spots every 50 feet. It should also be noted that fire extinguishers are not infallible, and you should check them regularly to ensure they are properly charged and ready for immediate use.

Lightning can also cause barn fires. Its potential as a fire source can be negated with properly installed lightning rods that serve to direct the energy from the strike through a heavy conducting cable deep into the ground. Installing lighting rods is something to be taken seriously; seek the help of an expert, and check the credentials of any installer you hire.

Finally, every facility should have a fire evacuation plan of action as well as rules aimed at preventing fires. For starters, phone numbers for the fire department and other emergency personnel should be posted where they are readily accessible. Barn personnel should be trained in how to use an extinguisher correctly. Everyone on the farm–no matter their age–should know exactly what to do if a fire breaks out. Design the plan to protect human life first and foremost.

Stall construction can facilitate easy evacuation of horses. Stall doors should open outward into the aisleway or slide open so that handlers can free horses more quickly and easily. Stall doorways to the exterior of the barn are also helpful. Latches should be easy to operate with one hand. Have halter and lead ropes available at each stall door.

There should be water sources available near the barn so the fire department can quickly access them, and approaches to the barn should be wide enough to accommodate a large fire engine.

Take-Home Message

Keys to barn fire prevention include common sense, basic farm maintenance, and reducing fuel sources. These suggestions, along with early detection devices, can help reduce the chances of a fire on your property.