Barn Fires and the Loss of Horses

By Bonnie J. Hilton

Saddle and Bridle Magazine Equine Articles


Crane logo The menace of fire! Written for Saddle & Bridle magazine by Bonnie J. Hilton. © copyrighted horse article.
With the myriad number of problems that owners face, whether they have their own facility or board, the menace of fire is often overlooked. We don't look beyond the locked stall door for possible problems. Personally, I don't think we need more legislation to force compliance. We need better education on the subject. We also need to police our own ranks and voice concerns when we see negligence. I wrote on the subject years ago, but after really looking around at some of the facilities I frequent, it seems the same problems still exist. What can you do to minimize the risk of fire?

1. Elimination of rodent population. The first definition of rodent is "gnawing". That means they have sharp teeth that they use to chew things to eat, as well as to produce nesting material. Rodents are gnawing mammals, warm blooded critters, like rats, mice, squirrels, chipmunks, beavers, etc. I doubt you are going to have beavers move into your facility, but the other members of the rodent family, especially mice, are a constant danger. Why? They will get into the smallest of places and they will chew into exposed electrical wiring and make nests in electrical junction boxes.

Although hard to believe, once you see it, you will never forget the possible danger. You have to be vigilant to keep these pests out of your facility, they can move in and reproduce quickly. At my home we have a large vertical propane tank outside the back stairs. I opened the cover this week and guess what I found built around the valves? My husband said that the nest was not there a week ago. You don't want mice coming into your home any more than you want them to be a constant resident in your barn. Rats can be an even bigger concern because of the holes and tunnel system they will build over time, which may jeopardize your stall base layers and even pose a flooding problem if you have a drainage issue during periods of heavy rain. I frequent a new facility and they already have rats. Holes have appeared at the base wall of several stalls as well as in the attached indoor arena. I had suggested that they talk about pest control during the building process, but they didn't think they would have a problem. With double wall construction, now they have to face the concerns that these rodents have taken up residency and will be more difficult to dispose of.

I am not going to explain methods of elimination because that is not my expertise. I grew up on a farm during the years when we used poisons that are banned now. We also used trapping systems that are now considered as cruel.

I hope that the thought of your barn burning to the ground, with or without injury to your livestock, will change your mind about what methods you will use. From ants to alligators, pest control is big business across the country and there is plenty of information out there. I will say that I like the new bait station system, that keeps the elimination product away from pets and literally out of sight. However, you have to monitor their use and keep them baited, so it is another thing that has to be put on the routine list for the facility.

2. Conduit wiring. Building codes in some areas are exacting about this and I don't think I need to explain that with new barn construction or when upgrading old wires, they should pass through metal tubing. Yes it is expensive and time consuming but once done, you have nixed some of the rodent problem concerns, as long as you remain within the code forever. Don't add on to the wiring any other way. I have just noticed this problem at a facility, which was originally wired in conduit. New outside lights were added by the facility owner and the same code was not followed. They didn't pull a permit, they wired the new lights outside of conduit. The wire is heavy duty and the excuse was that nothing would be chewing into it. They have rodents in this facility. I leave it up to boarders to deal with the issue and voice their concerns.

3. Plugs, breakers, extension cords, heaters, dust, cobwebs and the "clutter bug". You put this list together and you shake it up and you may just get a spark. Lack of money, lack of time, lack of talent, lack of education, lack of help and maybe lack of setting priorities. I don't care if it is a one stall backyard barn or something like the multi-million dollar facility that I just worked at, there is no excuse for it. The building can be as safe as possible, constructed of non-flammable materials of concrete and steel, but a pile of clutter near an overloaded plug, a dusty heater, a hot extension or cobwebs infesting the utility area can pose a danger. Don't let the "clutter bug" infest your facility. Research the ways that other facilities are fighting the ever present problem of dust and cobwebs.

Several years ago I found with experimentation that overhead fan brushes have handles that would fit into long sections of conduit pipe that were left over at a facility I was working at. We used the old standby of duct tape to secure the brush and could then reach up into the truss system over the stalls to clean down the cobwebs. It was hard physical labor but it worked. A heavy duty shop vac with hose extension and a sturdy step ladder was used to clean down all the walls.

You may have to educate staff and clients about electrical connections and the use of appliances at your facility. Don't assume anything!!! Accidents will happen when people don't know any better. I have been horrified at the rigging set up in old buildings in order to get power to clippers, vacs, lights, etc. I have seen long extensions run up through dust and cobweb covered rafters and multiple extensions plugged into expanded outlets. What I don't understand is why when extensions are used, they are not unplugged and put away somewhere along with the equipment. Maybe we should use improper extensions, let them get hot and have a demonstration by the fire department to show the possible outcome.

Although the following is not a fire hazard, electrocution can also be a concern. I was at a facility this past month and an extension cord was being used outside to a piece of power equipment. The ground was wet from rain and the young man had pulled the cord through the wet grass as he was doing his job. The extension was plugged inside the barn, where it was dry. When the young man (in his 20s) finished the job he was doing, instead of going into the barn and unplugging the extension from the source, he reached down and unplugged the power equipment from the wet cord. Four decades ago, the son of one of my late dad's friends, was killed doing a similar thing. Is it negligence or ignorance? I really feel in this case, it was the latter. Yes I opened my mouth, yes I probably made the guy feel like an idiot, but he did say, "I didn't think about it." He probably was being honest. You don't need people working around your facility that are not "thinking" about what they are doing. I suppose this is one of the biggest reasons I can support the old managerial tool learned in England of making the late night barn check or "set fair" of each horse and its housing.

4. Chemicals. the junk that the clutter bug allows to accumulate, there is the possibility of hazardous chemical, some probably flammable, getting stored in your facility where they really don't need to be. Here again, what is less expensive, replacing your facility or buying or building that utility shed you have been talking about getting for some time? As all facilities grow, the clutter and "stuff' accumulates, and the actual facility, where the day to day operation for the equines and clients is, is not the location for the peripheral equipment. Bring a weed eater into the barn with a hot motor and have it placed somewhere where somehow an empty paper grain bag or something else that is flammable gets too close. This is how the accident happens. If there is an extension to your facility, then fire wall construction and further sensor equipment will be a wise addition.

5. Smoke detectors and modern alert systems. This is where I have to admit that we have the ability to be better armed against the possibility of fire. If I were to build a facility today or start remodeling I would want an alarm system. However, do I want it to go off in the facility? The loud noise of an alert system going off in a barn could scare the horses and cause stall injury. If the residence is on property, I would want the alarm to go off in the home. If the facility does not have a human presence on property at all times, then an outside monitoring service may be warranted.

6. Smoking. Last but not least, don't allow smoking in your facility. Plain and simple. Don't give negligence a chance to walk around your facility or actually into it when you are not there to stop it. If you have to build the smoking gazebo, that is seen at so many places of work now, so be it, but don't allow anyone to be smoking anywhere else. I was a smoker many years ago and I am compassionate to the addiction but not the problem of negligence when it comes to a dropped hot ash tip or a discarded butt that is still smoldering. Any smoker, or past smoker knows of burn holes in furniture, car seats, clothes and the like that they have caused.

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