Margie Margentino, Former Program Associate, Animal Sciences
Karyn Malinowski, Director, Equine Science Center
Sara Malone, Teaching Instructor, Department of Animal Sciences
Update 7/19: Pending New Jersey legislation may affect exemptions of Department of Community Affairs' current interpretations of the fire/building codes and enforcement. This fact sheet will be updated accordingly to reflect those changes when they are in effect.
Barn fires are a farm owner’s worst nightmare. Most have tragic results such as the loss of human life, animals, valuable equipment, or the building itself. The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) estimated that during the period 2013–2017, 326 deadly barn fires occurred.
These fires resulted in one civilian death, ten civilian injuries and $28 million in direct property damage, annually; the number of animals lost in these fires was not reported.
Insurance statistics show that the two most common times of the year for barn fires are summer and winter. Summer fires are often the result of electrical storms or spontaneous combustion of hot hay. Winter fires are caused by appliances, rodents chewing through wires, or the accumulation of dust and cobwebs on electrical surfaces. Heating equipment is the leading cause of fires in barns with heat lamps as the leading heating equipment involved in these fires.
Barn fires are not small. Half of barn structure fires involve the entire building. This fact sheet will explain to horse owners and others the short- and long-term precautions that should be taken to help reduce the incidence of barn fires. Farm owners and managers should be able to identify potential fire hazards around the farm:
Highly Flammable or Combustible Materials
If at all possible, hay, straw, and other types of bedding should not be stored in the same building in which livestock is housed. Care should be taken that these materials are not stored with machinery or near any type of electrical or heat source. Highly flammable materials may include:
Once hay is stored, it is important to monitor the temperature to determine if the hay is at risk for spontaneous combustion. The Humane Society of the United States suggests inserting a thermometer into the middle of the stack to check the temperature of the hay. If it reads higher than 150 °Fahrenheit, the hay needs to be checked regularly, and stacked bales should be disassembled to promote air circulation to cool the hay. If the temperature climbs to 175 °Fahrenheit or higher, call the fire department; with the assistance of the fire department, remove the hot hay from the storage structure.
Accelerants are substances that increase the speed at which a fire spreads. All accelerants are highly flammable or combustible, but not all highly flammable or combustible materials are accelerants. Accelerants must be stored in approved containers and properly labeled as such (plastic milk bottles do not qualify as approved containers for storing chemicals). An updated list of all chemicals on the farm should be maintained. The list should include the name of the chemical, date purchased, the quantity of the chemical, and the place of storage on the farm. This list should be kept in a safe, handy place such as a farm office (not in the building where the products are stored). In some states and municipalities an inventory and location of accelerants on the farm may need to be on file with local authorities and be given to the fireperson in charge to aid the fire department in knowing what potential toxic fumes or explosions may result and how to most effectively contain the situation. Common accelerants include:
An ignition source is something that can cause an accelerant or flammable material to ignite or smolder. Examples of ignition sources are:
Roadways and Farm Access
When constructing a new building in which to house horses and/or livestock, precautions should be taken to reduce the chance of barn fires. Many of these measures are required by the township’s building code. Always check with the town building inspector’s office for the requirements and permits necessary in your area. Many insurance companies will lower premiums if extra fire safety precautions are taken during the construction of a new building, some of which may be above and beyond the standards required by the township. Check with industrial insurance companies regarding which features will possibly lower insurance premiums. Extra measures may include:
Electrical Systems and Devices
Electrical systems in barns, especially in older structures, are often the cause of a barn fire. The following safety precautions (sometimes beyond the township electrical code requirements) should be taken when installing a new system or repairing older electrical systems:
General Fire Safety Precautions
The Lightning Protection Institute estimated that 41% of 250 lightning-related equine deaths were not the result of horses being struck directly, but were due to horses being asphyxiated or burning in barn fires caused by lightning.
Smoke Detectors for Livestock Buildings
Early fire detection systems may give you enough time to get livestock out and maybe save the building. Heat and smoke detectors are available for livestock facilities. The detectors should be professionally installed to guarantee that they are in the most effective location within the barn. Sirens or bells should be loud enough to be heard from a distance, in case no one is in the immediate vicinity of the barn. The alarm should go directly to the fire department alerting them that there is a barn fire and live animals and/or humans might be involved.
What Not to Do!
Never fight a fire if it is already large and spreading.
Never fight a fire that could spread to block your escape route.
Never fight a fire if you have not been trained to properly use a fire extinguisher.
- Safe Horse Farm Operation, DVD. Rutgers Equine Science Center, New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station. 1990.
- U.S. Structure Fires in Barn. National Fire Protection Association. Jennifer Flynn. 2008.
- “How to Fireproof your Horse Barn.” Equisearch. Accessed June 2006 at equisearch.com/advice/how_to/eqfire688.
- Lightning Protection Institute.
- Making your Horse Barn Fire Safe. The American Humane Society of the United States. 2005.
- The National Equine Safety Association (NESA).
- U.S. Fires in Selected Occupancies. National Fire Protection Association. Marty Ahrens. March 2006.
- Structure Fires in Barns. National Fire Protection Association. Ben Evarts. 2012.
- “Preventing Fires in Baled Hay and Straw.” (2012). Farm and Ranch eXtension in Safety and Health (FReSH) Community of Practice. Retrieved from extension.org/pages/66577/preventing-fires-in-baled-hay-and-straw
- A Review of Strategies to Prevent and Respond to Barn Fires Affecting the Horse Industry. American Association of Equine Practitioners. Rebecca M. Gimenez, Jennifer A. Woods, Roberta M. Dwyer, and Tomas Gimenez. 2008.
- NFPA 1: Fire Code. National Fire Protection Association. 2018.
- Animal Science Update: Spontaneous Combustion. New Jersey Farmer. Michael Westendorf. 2016.
Other Related Rutgers Cooperative Extension Fact Sheets
- Pesticide Storage Facilities
- Safety Recommendations for the Stable, Barnyard, and Horse/Livestock Structures
This publication was made possible in part by a grant from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health Program on Agricultural Health Promotion Systems for New Jersey.
Revised June 2019