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Barn Safety Expert Offers Fire Prevention Tips

By Suzanne Bush

Since the beginning of 2006, hundreds of thousands of animals—horses, cows, dogs, pigs, chickens, turkeys, goats and sheep—have died in barn fires in the United States. Nearly 500 of those animals were horses. Laurie Loveman, an expert in barn safety who is also a firefighter, has dedicated much of her life to helping people prevent barn fires. Loveman, an avid horsewoman, is a member of the National Fire Prevention Association (NFPA) Technical Committee on Fire Safety in Animal Housing Facilities.

For several years she has been keeping statistics on barn fires, their causes and their devastating consequences. "My original intent was to see what factors were involved; to find patterns.  What I found through keeping this chart is that animals were dying in preventable fires, and the cost of prevention was very low when compared to the economic consequences of fire or other disaster.  But, economics aside, the emotional toll we suffer, and often carry with us for the rest of our lives, is incalculable."

That toll manifests itself as a mournful litany of questions, as well as boundless grief. Haunted by the what-ifs and the what-might-have-been scenarios, people who have lost animals in barn fires often find it hard to recover the sense of balance and optimism they had when their animals were alive.

Loveman believes that horse owners can buy precious time with their horses by carving out a small amount of time to develop fire prevention and emergency evacuation plans. "Fire prevention, for the most part, consists of practices, 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," she says.

Smoking Taboo

The first thing to prohibit under every circumstance, she says, is smoking. "Stringently enforce the No Smoking rule, not just by posting signs, but by firmly telling a smoker to refrain," she says. Barn owners who do not rigorously enforce this rule may find that they've inadvertently invalidated their insurance policies.

"There's a 'code' that's come down through the years," she says, "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."

Cobwebs A Danger

Loveman says that brooms and rakes are two of the best fire prevention tools available to barn owners. "Get rid of cobwebs hanging from the rafters," she says. Even though cobwebs are persistent—they seem to grow back over night—keeping after them robs fire of an easy pathway to spread throughout a barn.  "Cobwebs provide excellent pathways along which flame can travel--so quickly that in seconds fire will have spread from one end of the barn to the other.  In addition, flaming pieces of cobwebs falling into stalls will start new fires."

Tractors and mowers should be free of leaves and grass clippings before being parked in barns. Exhaust pipes and manifolds on trucks and tractors are hot. Dried leaves and grass stuck to them can easily catch fire.

Loveman says that there are two times in the year when barn fires spike: "When fresh hay is harvested, around Memorial Day," she says, and then in winter when people start putting space heaters and other appliances in barns to keep horses or riders warm. "The portable heater is a disaster waiting to happen," she says.

Hay Is A Hazard

Hay, because it is such a prominent feature of barns, is often overlooked as a fire hazard. But, Loveman explains, the moisture in hay can create an ideal environment for bacteria to grow. Warm temperature bacteria grow and multiply, creating heat. When the temperature in the bale of hay reaches 130 or 140 degrees Fahrenheit, the bacteria will die off and the internal temperature of the bale will generally drop. However, if the weather is hot, the temperature inside the bale may not drop. Heat-loving bacteria will begin to grow and multiply, raising the internal temperature of the bale to dangerous levels, damaging the hay. "This first six weeks after harvesting is the most common time for hay fires," Loveman says.

Loveman says that the ideal hay storage arrangement would be in a building separate from where animals are stabled. That is not always possible, as many barns have haylofts above stables, or hay storage on the same level as stalls. "Whatever your decision is regarding hay storage, the best fire prevention tool you have is your broom.  Keep loose hay and straw swept up, and if you have hay drops, don't permit loose hay to hang over the edges; like cobwebs, flaming hay can drop through and start other fires," she says.

Sprinkler Systems

In addition to good housekeeping routines and having fire extinguishers within easy reach, Loveman is an advocate of sprinkler systems in barns, along with alarm systems that detect sudden spikes in heat or smoke from a smoldering fire. "I'm a firm believer in sprinkler systems being installed in every facility where humans or animals live or work.  You see, all the alerting systems devised won't do you a bit of good if there is no one in the barn to start evacuation."

The economic realities of barn management may rule out installation of sprinkler systems and early-warning systems, but that doesn't mean barn owners and boarders can't develop proactive strategies to prevent fires.

The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) has published a booklet called "Making Your Horse Barn Fire Safe," which incorporates material written by Loveman and Robert Barnard, who created a disaster planning guide for farms and ranches. Stacey Segal, HSUS Equine Specialist, says that they've just reprinted the book.

She says that there are lots of things that barn fires have in common. "I think typically the thing we hear most about is people not thinking ahead," she says. Like Loveman, Segal emphasizes the need to manage cobwebs and, where possible, hay storage.

The HSUS booklet's recommendations for ensuring barn safety include:

  • Prohibit smoking;
  • Make sure there are fully-charged fire extinguishers within easy reach;
  • Restrict access to stable areas. Don't let unauthorized people get near the stable, or wander around the barn area unsupervised;
  • Keep the barn clean—sweep up stray shavings and hay, and get rid of cobwebs;
  • Keep hay and shavings cool. Pay attention to the way the hay and shavings smell. A sooty odor near the haystack may be a sign of combustion deep in the hay bales;
  • Pay attention to your barn's electrical system. Have wiring inspected and repaired;
  • Install lightning protection;
  • Develop and post an evacuation plan, and train everyone at the barn how to follow the plan.

The HSUS booklet is available at www.hsus.org. Individual copies are free, but there is a charge for multiple copies.

Laurie Loveman's website, www.laurieloveman.com, includes articles and case studies about all aspects of fire prevention around barns.

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