Check back every Wednesday through Feb. 24 for our continuing series on Farm Design, sponsored by VirginiaCountryProperties.com.
It’s hard to forget the terrifying barn fire scene in Black Beauty. While we no longer use kerosene lamps for light these days, fire is still a frightening and very real threat to the safety of your farm and horses. However, fires are also preventable if the right precautions are taken.
“One of the highest causes of barn fires is [electrical problems],” said Lorri Hayward of Hayward Designs. “The second highest is [a hot bale of hay], and the third is carelessness [like smoking in the barn]. You want to try to avoid those potential problem areas as much as you can.”
“The most important thing to have is common sense,” said Matthew Odishoo, who has served as a volunteer firefighter and deputy fire marshal in Berlin, Conn., for the past 26 years. “We joke that lack of common sense is job security for us. Call your local fire department and have them inspect your farm. They will point out some of the problems you have and explain how to make your barn fire safe.”
From The Beginning
Protecting your barn starts in the design process. Because one of the major causes of barn fires is a "hot" bale of hay, it’s important to keep the majority of your hay storage away from the main barn.
“We will not design a loft because it is a fire hazard,” said Lachlan Oldaker of GH2 Gralla Equestrian Architects. “The dust and everything else created by a loft is not good for the horses or the barn.”
“People don’t realize how much heat green or wet hay actually generates,” added Odishoo. “We’ve had some calls for smoldering and smoke from hay bales. Keep that stuff out of the barn until it’s dried out properly.”
Stick To Codes
One of the main themes in this series has been keeping everything up to code. This is doubly important for fire safety.
“When it comes to barn fires, 90 percent were started by electrical problems,” said Odishoo. “Barns need to meet minimal standards, even structurally. That’s the foundation to good fire safety.”
Odishoo’s Quick Fire Prevention Tips
- If you use heat tape to keep your pipes from freezing, make sure you check the tape for cracks or exposed wires on a regular basis. “Every time we see that we cringe. They aren’t made that well, and if they fail, they start to spark and arc. The last thing you need is a spark inside the barn,” said Odishoo.
- Don’t use carpenter heat lamps to heat your stalls. “They can get knocked off and land in hay or bedding and start a fire,” said Odishoo. “We’ve lost an entire barn that way.”
- Avoid extension cords. “Extension cords are not designed to be used as permanent, day-to-day wiring,” said Odishoo. “When animals walk on them, and stuff is thrown on top of them, it creates heat in the cord and can easily start a fire.”
- Avoid parking tractors and vehicles in or near the barn. Engine heat and backfires can spark a flame. Also store other machinery and flammable materials outside the barn.
- Keep appliances to a minimum in the barn. Use stall fans, space heaters and radios only when someone is in the barn.
- Prohibit smoking around the barn.
- Inspect your wiring each season. It’s easier to fix than rebuild.
Keeping Barns Clean
Just because your animals live in it, doesn’t mean your barn should be a pigsty. Cleanliness is one of the main contributors to fire safety.
“The biggest ‘do’ for fire safety is good housekeeping,” said Odishoo. “Keep the dust down to a minimum. I’ve been in barns that you walk into it and know it’s a fire hazard.”
Odishoo also recommended reducing clutter and storing flammable liquids away from the barn or in flammable liquid cabinets to keep vapors out of the atmosphere.
Once you have the basics of fire safety in play, there are additional ways to help protect your barn in case a fire does break out.
“With a lot of barn fires, people find them when they see the glow from the bedroom window,” said Odishoo. “In the past, they were just old buildings. They weren’t surprised when they burned. That’s changing now. The animals are more expensive, and you have to provide better protections.”
The most cost-efficient method of fire protection is to install smoke or heat detectors. Smoke detectors designed for residences don’t generally work well in barns, because dust and condensation can set them off. Heat detectors are a better option—they’re less likely to give a false alarm, but they may take longer to trip than a smoke detector.
“These are cheap fixes,” said Odishoo. “The detectors may help you get to it before it bursts into flame. Once the fire starts you’re in trouble.”
Extinguishing The Flames