Every year, I hear sad stories about people who have lost horses to a barn fire. Sometimes, despite our best efforts, accidents happen. But with a little foresight, many accidents are preventable. Here's what you can do to make your horse barn more fire safe.
A place for everything and everything in its place is as valid a maxim in your barn as it is in your home. Being tidy might not prevent a fire, but if you have to get horses and people out in a hurry, you want to be sure that there are no mucking out tools left laying in aisles and doors, stairs and alleys are clear of wheel barrows and other paraphernalia that ends up in barns. Another ‘barnkeeping task’ that should be looked after is making sure stall doors open freely. You don’t want to be fiddling with a stall door latch, or pushing on a stubborn overhead roller that is sticking when you want to get a horse out fast.
Barn cleaning should also include clearing up as much loose chaff and spider webs. Spiderwebs or ‘cobwebs’ are highly flammable. Sweep them down as often as possible. Make sure steps to the loft are swept clean of chaff as not only is there danger of slipping on chaff in an emergency, it’s also a hazard as you do your every day chores.
Protect Everyone With GFCI’s, Covered Lights and Safe Wiring
Electrical codes change over time, and there’s a good reason for this. Newer materials and methods make electrical installations in barns safer. My husband, who is an electrician and has wired barns and arenas, tells me there are wires with coverings that actually taste good to mice. You don’t want that in your barn!
You need to have the right kind of wiring, approved for outdoor and barn use. Common house wire (usually with a white plastic like covering) doesn’t belong in barns. Exposed wires in the barn are a huge fire hazard. Wires can also get pulled and shifted. We recently had an incident where the wiring was pulled out of a light fixture after raccoons used the wire has a hand-hold along a beam.
Any light fixture should have a cage or other protection around it to prevent horses hitting or biting it. Exposed light bulbs are a safety hazard in more ways than one.
Any plugs in or around a barn should be wired with GFCIs. This isn’t so much a fire protection as protection from electrical shock.
No smoking in or around barns is almost a ‘no brainer’.
Put Dry Hay in Your Loft
Hay that is baled with too much moisture can heat up and eventually combust. We were surprised, when we took delivery of several round bales that were quite wet inside, at how quickly they got very hot, even standing outside (our hay guy was glad to replace them with dryer hay). You certainly wouldn’t want that in your barn loft. Many barns have been lost to the spontaneous combustion of damp hay. Be sure your horse hay is dry before packing it your barn loft. Ideally, hay should be stored in a separate building, well set back from your horse’s stable.
Don’t Let Water Heaters Run Dry
Water heaters are a real benefit during the colder months, saving labour and worry that horses aren’t drinking enough water for their health. But they can present a fire hazard too. If for some reason, the trough or bowl runs dry, and the heater element does not shut off, it may be possible for dry bedding, hay or other material to fall onto the exposed element and start burning. It’s also very important for any appliance used in a barn to be plugged into a GFI protected element.
I know there are barns that have kettles, toaster ovens, microwaves and hot dog makers in their tack or observation rooms. I’m not a real fan of these things used in barns, but if you must, make sure everything is wired properly, clean, in good working order and that someone checks that everything is turned off or unplugged after use.
Heaters and sunlamps (used to discourage winter coat growth) should be used with extreme caution. I know of barns where the regular lighting is put on a timer to discourage the growth of winter coats, and it seems sufficient. A sunlamp may not be needed and present an unnecessary hazard. Heaters in tack rooms and observation areas should be used with extreme caution.
Keep Combustibles Out Of the Barn
Barns tend to get filled with all sorts of odds and ends. Don’t store any type of fuel, paint or thinner, oils or any other combustible fluid or material. Storing tractors, ATVs, snowmobiles and other vehicles can present a hazard. These things should have their own home, separate from horses, feed and bedding.
The smoke detectors that you can buy for your home are unsuitable for use in a barn. The dust that is unavoidable in barns can affect their ability to work well. Plus, you may not be able to hear a smoke detector in the barn, if you don’t have the alarm wired in the house. There are smoke detectors available through industrial fire safety companies that are made to work in high-dust areas. These can be wired so that there is an alarm that sounds in your house, so should something happen when you’re not in your barn you'll still hear it.