Unfortunately, this is the time of year we hear tragic stories about barns catching fire, resulting in the loss of horse and human life. As it gets chilly, we turn up the heat and put longer hours on our electrical and heating systems. As we raise the temperatures and keep lights on longer in our barns, our risk for fires greatly increases. Prevention is the key to avoid tragedy.
Rural communities also face unique fire risks. Due to increased distances from farmsteads to others who could help, plus the distance to a fire station, the rural horse owner is at a greater risk. These larger distances equal fire death rates much higher than found in city areas. Now is the time to do an annual barn evaluation and winter clean up to prevent a barn fire tragedy!
To prevent a barn fire, you must keep combustibles and sources of ignition separate. Combustibles are everywhere in a barn and its how you store, clean and use them that make a difference. Some combustibles found in barns are hay, bedding, cobwebs, weeds, gasoline, diesel, paint, pesticides, dust, lint, garbage, wood, tractors and ATVs.
It is recommended to store your reserves of large combustibles like hay, shavings, fuels, tractors and ATVs in a separate building at least 50 feet away from your horse stable. If you must keep some hay or shavings in the barn, only keep enough for the next feeding and cleaning. Hay should always be tested for excess moisture, as excess moisture may lead to spontaneous combustion.
As we enter the winter season, cleaning up the dust and grime from the summer season becomes critical. Removing cobwebs and dust from electrical outlets and lights is very important as they will catch electric sparks and let a fire spread quickly. Sweeping up loose hay and straw and disposing them away from the barn is also important.
The daily maintenance tasks of taking trash out, cleaning feeders and wiping any fan blades to keep them free of dust, are especially important. If you have a clothes dryer in your barn, clean out the lint trap every time you use it. Try to also avoid very fine sawdust as a bedding material as it produces too much flammable dust.
Install smoke detectors in your barn and put a 10-pound ABC fire extinguisher at each exit. Always hang a halter and lead rope on each stall. Keep entrances and exits clear and unblocked and only use extension cords for temporary uses, not for overnight heaters. Make sure all light fixtures are encased in safety enclosures. Check that all electric circuits are protected by ARC fault breakers and that all electric wire is enclosed in non corrosive conduit, and post a “Barn Site Map” with instructions on how to turn off utilities and who to call in an emergency situation.
Inspect all possible sources of ignition such as temporary heat lamps, water bucket heaters, portable heaters and fans. Portable heaters are especially a fire risk. If you use a portable heater make sure that it is placed on a clear, solid surface, away from any flammable items and that it cannot get knocked over. Also, check to make sure it is labeled for agricultural or commercial use.
The use label is important, as it may mean the heater can withstand a more varied dirty environment, along with its temperature and moisture changes. Do not let water bucket heaters run dry. Once empty, the continuous heat can melt the bucket, resulting in ignition of stall bedding and hay.
In the barn office, make sure the coffee maker, microwave and refrigerator are in a clean, safe usable condition and plugged directly into a wall receptacle. An annual electrical inspection, completed by a qualified electrician familiar with livestock barns, is highly recommended to check for signs of deterioration or corrosion, as one of the leading causes of barn fires is a faulty electric wiring system sometimes caused by rodent damage.
By being proactive in barn fire safety we can make sure to keep ourselves and our horses warm and comfortable this winter. To learn more about fire safety on the farm and to download a free barn fire safety checklist go to www.nfpa.org/farms.