Some years ago I was asked by an insurance company to identify the bodies of some horses the morning after a very bad stable fire. A few upright studs, still smoking and charred were all that was left of the structure. Here and there on the still hot concrete floor of the aisle lay scattered nails and stall hardware. Two of the bodies were so badly burned we had to rely on where the horses lay to figure out who they were.
Most Maine horse barns have the potential of burning completely to the ground less than 30 minutes after a fire starts. Our wooden barns were often built decades, sometimes hundreds of years ago. To save space we store our hay directly overhead. Hay is easily ignited, sometimes spontaneously if improperly cured. Firefighters will tell you that hay is considered almost explosive once ignited. Intensely burning hay causes rapid disintegration of the floor it is stored on, and horses below receive a literal rain of fire on their backs. In most cases the horses are not aware. They have already died of smoke inhalation. Barns burn so fast it is rare that a fire department can arrive in time to save the animals, or even any part of the barn. The rule of thumb is that fires double in size with every passing minute. The devastation is often so complete that investigators cannot tell how the fire began.
It seems like every year we lose horses to barn fires here in the state. It’s the disaster we all fear the most. I know I do. My wooden barn is around 150 years old, and the hay is overhead. One edge of the barn is 2 feet from my garage which is attached to our 200 year old house.
Barn fires are not always preventable, but there are some preparations we should make as responsible horse owners. First, all commercial barns should invite the local fire department to come for an inspection. Firefighters usually welcome the opportunity to familiarize themselves with your layout. Ask them for recommendations about your wiring, type and placement of extinguishers, winter accessibility to the barn, and type and placement of smoke and heat detectors.
Work with the fire department to come up with a disaster plan. Get together with your family or boarders and make sure it is understood. Sketch out the barn with stall, tack room, and all exits. Ask yourself, “what would I do, and in what order if I saw smoke coming from the barn.” One of our clients who has been a firefighter for years tells me: “people underestimate the debilitating effect of smoke on their vision, breathing, and ability to function without becoming lost or disoriented. It is extremely perilous entering a burning structure.” Once the building is involved even a firefighter in turn out gear may only be able to save one or two horses. Always! Always! call 911 before taking any other action.
Here are some quick cautions. Never store gas or diesel storage in the barn and never, ever, allow an open flame. Beware of heat lamps, frayed extension cords, electric heaters in tack rooms without tip over switches. Get rid of the cobwebs (they burn fast). If you use fans in summer blow out the dust around the motor every week. Fire trucks are wide and heavy. Your road to the barn should be solid and plowed in the winter. Allow at least a 12 foot clearance to get to structures.
The ideal barn would have every stall with its own door to the outside. If you are going to build a barn use fire retardant wood products. Store your hay in a separate structure, a good distance from the barn. Every stall door should have a halter with lead attached. The extra time it takes to go to the tack room for a halter could make the difference between life and death for that horse. Horses led out from a burning barn are apt to run back in if just let go. They associate the barn and their stall with safety. Think about a designated paddock or round pen far from the barn that will hold them safely.
Lightning rod protection and sprinkler systems are expensive, but a huge plus for peace of mind. Because most farms are not on town water the sprinkler system would include a five hundred to many thousand gallon tank, depending on barn square footage.
Here’s hoping you never have to deal with a barn fire. Because the potential is always there, have plans in place for this emergency and review them regularly.
My thanks to Chief Gary Sacco of the New Gloucester FD, and Dana Stewart, firefighter and CEO of Dean and Allyn, Inc, (Sprinkler Fire Protection Systems of Gray) for their willingness to review and help with this article.
–David A. Jefferson, DVM