There are few structures more flammable than a barn. Between the typical wood construction, the hay, straw or wood shavings used for bedding, the blankets, leg wraps, and saddle pads, the inevitable cobwebs, and the dust and particles in the air, most barns are a three-alarm fire waiting to erupt.
Fire prevention is more than hanging a "no smoking" sign on the door. It requires a comprehensive approach – from identifying the hazards to taking every possible precaution. Some of the measures described below are required by your local building codes. Others may be considered optional but will buy you both peace of mind and maybe even a break on insurance premiums.
The best time to think about fire safety is before you build your barn. When you incorporate fire prevention ideas in the design of your structure you can save yourself a lot of grief. Here are some suggestions:
Install your fuse box in the driest, most dust-free spot in the barn – usually the tack room or the office.
Run wiring through armored BX cable (coiled material that resembles a long spring) or PVC pipe because mice and rats are notorious for nibbling through power lines.
Don't overload your circuits. If you're not sure how much your circuits can handle consult a licensed electrician for recommendations. In fact, if you are at all uncomfortable with wiring, hire a professional. If you wire the barn yourself, hire someone to inspect your work thoroughly.
Place electrical outlets out of the reach of horses (for example, near the top of the stalls or close to the ceiling). Make sure they are the "outdoor" type outlets with spring-closing covers that help keep out moisture and dust.
Install moisture and dust-proof on/off switches on the motors for circulation fans, water pumps and hay elevators. Make sure these motors are more than 2 feet from combustible material.
Put protective covers and/or "cages" over light fixtures to keep horses, and people, from accidentally touching them.
Make sure electric fence units ("fencers") are UL-approved and ideally of the intermittent current type. The continuous current units are a higher fire risk. Locate them away from your barn, preferably enclosed in a weatherproof structure and make sure they're properly grounded.
In the Barn
Strictly enforce the "no smoking" rule.
Make sure all exterior doors open "out." When people panic they usually don't have the presence of mind to pull in on a door. Sliding doors are another alternative.
Install approved fire doors, or at least a firewall, between the stabling area and the hay and bedding storage area.
Put a fire extinguisher at each door. The powder-type, or ABC "dry chemical" extinguishers that are effective against almost all kinds of fires, are best. Remember that extinguishers are useless if they do not work, so it is wise to have them inspected yearly at your local fire station or safety supply company. Check the gauge on each extinguisher once a month to ensure that they are fully charged. Turn the extinguishers upside down every eight weeks or so and give them a few whacks with the flat of your hand to prevent the powder chemical from settling in the cylinders.
Keep a cordless telephone in the barn so you can easily call the fire department. Punch the fire department's number into your speed dial and post it prominently on the wall in your tack room or office. Ground that telephone line.
Install at least one exterior water source – a faucet and hose that originate on the outside of the building – or an accessible pond. Many barns are miles from the nearest hydrant.
Coat the wood in your barn with a fire-retardant paint or stain. Such products may reduce the rate of ignition of a fire and the flame spread. It also can cut down on smoke and raise the combustion temperature of wood (or any natural surface they're applied to), giving you up to 75 percent more time to get your horses out of a burning structure. There are several varieties on the market, most of which can be brushed, rolled, or sprayed on raw wood surfaces. Buy one that is certified non-toxic to children and animals. These products may have to be reapplied on a regular basis to be effective.
Apply a fire-retardant product to a couple of wool or acrylic coolers (blanket-type coverings) that could be thrown over a horse or a human to protect against flying sparks and falling debris during a fire.
Store hay and straw in a separate structure instead of in a loft above the horses' heads.
Keep dust and cobwebs to a minimum.
Store grain in tightly covered, nibble-proof containers to discourage rodents that might chew barn wiring.
Situate your manure pile at least 20 feet from the barn to reduce the chance of spontaneous combustion.
Sweep hay and bedding from barn aisles and clean up weeds, twigs and other trash that accumulates around the exterior of the barn.
Store flammable items, like gasoline, propane, lawnmowers, elsewhere.
Leave horses haltered in their stalls or keep their halters and lead shanks hanging on stall doors so they are easily accessible in an emergency.
Hold practice fire drills so everyone has a plan of action should a fire erupt.