This is my response to questions and comments from my last blog post, and we will explore some more best practices related to barn fire prevention and response. Remember, there is a difference between prevention and response.

Many of you submitted excellent ideas on how to prevent barn fires in response to the last blog post about barn fires. These comments show me that as an industry, we horse people are pretty aware of the standard ideas out there to prevent fires in a barn: Have a NO SMOKING policy, remove cobwebs, separate hay and flammables in the barn, and leave halters and lead ropes available. So many of the listed ideas were spot on prevention methods. Several people went into details about how they prepare for wildfires that might impact their facilities, including having a pond to draft water from for a fire, and leaving plenty of open space with minimal combustibles between them.

barn fire

Smoke escapes from a barn at the very beginning of a fire. In a closed up barn, it may already be too late to save the animals.

We talk about these ideas, but when I walk through people's barns I often see major deficiencies, such as:
  • Obstacles in the barn aisle that will make it impossible for a firefighter or first responder to negotiate safely in the dark and smoke. (See photo)
  • Commonly, inappropriate fans, heaters, and other electrical devices are used with extension cords. These are just waiting to create a spark that can fall into the hay or shavings.
  • A lack of detection devices.
Others were more interested in talking about the actual response phase--where you can detect that the barn is actually already in smoke or flames from a fire. Several people contributed horror stories of being in this situation and not being able to access some of the horses in certain parts of the barn, yet able to release the others. Two more persons hit on the best design strategy for a barn evacuation of the animals in a hurry: having a fire lane or runway system where each horse can be released from it's stall, the door closed behind it, and then all horses chased out the fire lane runway to a secure area well away from the barn. One young lady said that when she grows up she would build a barn with these ideas in mind and keep her horses where they had access to a pasture from the barn in case it started to burn. Now we are getting there!

The crucial idea to understand is that once a barn catches on fire your chances of actually removing your animals are very small. You have literally minutes to respond before you will be unable to see, breathe, and assist animals once the smoke penetrates your eyes and lungs. By the time the fire department arrives, many of them report that the barn is deafeningly quiet--all living things are extinguished from inhaling smoke.

Only one person mentioned the only thing that will actually help suppress a fire in a barn: Good detection systems that detect the heat, the smoke, and the flames, and then an automatic sprinkler system. Why is it that sprinkler systems are such a rare idea in barns? Some racehorse barns use sprinkler systems, but these are generally not automatic sprinklers, as they require the fire department to arrive and hook their pumps into the system. This is an improvement, but automatic sprinklers are best because fire moves too fast and many times humans are not there when it starts.

barn fire

Don't let horses loose in the aisles out of their stalls--they will not leave unless you chase them out down a fire lane. Here a loose horse is searching for his buddy in the smoke and will run over the firefighters in fear.

Many people claim expense as a reason for the lack of sprinkler use. The expense, however, has reduced greatly over the last 25 years, and the decrease in the insurance policy quote for a barn with sprinklers may help pay for itself over a few years. Moreover, when I walk through a barn with many thousands of dollars of investment in horses, tack, facilities, and sentimental value that is beyond price, I often wonder how people can be so careful with their choice of pads, saddles, and shoes but so careless with investment in the one thing that will save their horses, and their facilities.

Others refer to cold temperatures possibly cracking the pipes in a sprinkler system as another reason for not using them. But there are air pressure pre-filled systems that are appropriate for northern climates, too. The fire professionals have done their work and come up with engineering options that work.

Call today and get a professional to give you a quote on a fire detection system that will work for your barn (that does not include the $8 smoke detectors at Home Depot). Get a quote for a sprinkler system on your existing barn or as an installation addition to the barn you are building. Call your insurance company and ask them how much the premiums might be reduced.

It might surprise you how inexpensive these measures are compared to standing there helplessly next to a horrific smoldering mess with your dreams and your best friend dashed in the flames.