I recently posted a blog on heated barns and the unnaturalness of the environment that they create. For animals, including horses, heated lamps, or other methods of adding heat to barns is sometimes necessary. However, these methods present a huge risk and should be used in only extreme weather conditions. Of course, “extreme” is a relative term dependent upon your horses, their winter coat, their feed supplements, the design of the barn, etc.

Horses are animals that are “designed” by nature to withstand the cold temperatures of winter even down to zero degrees Fahrenheit. When they are too cold in the wild there is no artificial heat source to relieve the animals. In the wild they are able to run to generate heat to stay warm or run behind a hill to avoid a cold wind. One of the problems with confining horses in paddocks, and even more so in barn stalls, is that horses lose the option to control their environments for health and safety needs.

Apart from their effect on the natural aspects of a barn, heating fixtures are one of the many potential causes of barn fires. While they may differ in their origins, fires are nonetheless devastating for barn owners. One only needs to search through Google’s recent news headlines to find barn fires are not uncommon occurrences.

Courtesy of Mansfield News Journal
Courtesy of Mansfield News Journal

Fire Caused by Added Heat Sources

The majority of the barn fires I read about in the last month were caused by electrical malfunctions or by heat lamps that had been left unattended or were knocked over. Of the 7 fires researched, 5 were caused by added sources of artificial heat. The cause of one of the other fires is still under investigation but it has been reported that a heat lamp could potentially be the culprit. Even the smallest spark or overheating from heat sources, electrical appliances, or cigarettes is enough to send a barn up in flames. Barns, which are often made of wood and store hay, are the perfect fuel source for a raging fire. A metal clad pole barn can be just as hazardous because of the light wood framing of the wood purlins and wood trusses (that collect cobwebs and bird nests).  Once those elements catch fire it is often only minutes before the barn is engulfed in flames and collapses.

In an article, “Barn Fire Prevention,” for TheHorse.com, Les Sellnow writes, “It takes two to three minutes for a straw fire to burn an area 10 feet in diameter. Compare this to the size of a common horse box stall that is 10 to 12 feet square. After a fire starts in a stall and spreads to only four feet in diameter, most horses are injured. By a six-foot diameter (fire), (the horse’s) lungs are seared. With an eight-foot diameter fire, the horse will start to suffocate. By 10 feet, the horse is dead. All of this occurs in two to three minutes. If a horse is to survive unharmed, he must be removed from the stall within 30 seconds” (Sellnow). This is a difficult task to do in any situation. The best answer to that risk is to design and operate the barn that reduces fire risks.

In two of the cases we found horses were able to escape the blaze by retreating to nearby paddocks and pastures. In other instances the horses and other animals dwelling in the barn were killed. In all of the cases firefighters arrived to find the barn completely engulfed in flames or close to completely.

Fires Caused by Natural Occurrences

Every once and a while a fire is caused without the help of human interference. Lightning and spontaneous combustion of hay are two natural sources of barn fire. It should be noted, the conditions that lead to spontaneous combustion are often cause by humans ignoring the proper precautions necessary when storing hay to prevent this phenomenon. A lightning bolt carries as much as 200 million volts of electricity, more than enough to spark a fire. The only instance of a lightning caused fire that we found occurred in Huntsville, Alabama on 1/14/14. By the time news of the blaze reached firefighters at 4 a.m. the entire barn was engulfed and 12 horses, 13 cats, and a dog perished.

Spontaneous combustion of hay occurs, believe it of not, when hay is too wet. “According to a pamphlet from the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), heat is generated by the bacterial reaction during the curing process, which begins while the hay is on the ground prior to baling. The moist interior of the hay might smolder unnoticed for some time before the edge of the stack is reached and spontaneous combustion ensues.” This reaction is preventable with proper maintenance.

Prevention Techniques:

“Prevention is the best medicine”; The barn, in fact the entire farm should be designed with the health and safety of the horse the primary concern.

Some suggestions to reduce risk of fire:

  • Use natural light as much as possible to reduce need for electric lights, especially in lofts
  • Avoid haylofts when possible and if hay storage is included ventilate, ventilate, ventilate but also isolate, isolate, isolate. Ventilate so hay breathes and cures but isolate in case spontaneous combustion should occur it is contained from spreading (or at least slow its spread giving time to get horses out of the barn.)
  • Design barn to create natural vertical ventilation to cool the barn in summer and exhaust humidity and bacteria in winter. Reduces dependency on electric fans. Damper the ventilation so the horse is not left in a cold draft in the stall in winter.
  • Blanket the horse when necessary and when weather conditions are extreme in lieu of heating the barn.
  • Provide exterior Dutch doors at stalls when possible for better ventilation control, improved day lighting of the stall and as a fire escape when necessary (remember to design latch so they are accessible from exterior.)
  • Create fire separations within larger barns in particular between heated and human occupied spaces and the stall area and to isolate arena from stall areas.
  • Avoid including full time residence within barn whenever possible to reduce fire risks. Better to locate in separate structure but if not possible, isolate by rated firewall.
  • All electrical wiring should be in metal conduit or metal sheathed wiring, even inside wall, floor and ceiling cavities (rodents can gnaw on the plastic cable).
  • Use explosion proof switches and outlet covers
  • Do not use barn for storage of motorized machinery or fuel
  • Design interior framing of barn to be easily accessible for cleaning and to reduce options for bird nesting and cobwebs
  • Design barn with masonry or heavy timber framing when possible and affordable as it is much more fire resistant than light wood framing