Revised July 2009
Marjorie R. Margentino, Former Program Associate in Animal Science; Karyn Malinowski, Ph.D., Director of the Equine Science Center; Sara R. Malone, Department of Animal Sciences
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 2002 – 2005, an estimated 1,090 structure fires in livestock, poultry storage, barns, stockyards, and animal pens were reported to municipal fire departments annually.
These fires resulted in two civilian fire deaths, ten civilian injuries and $32.4 million in direct property damage, annually; the number of animals lost in these fires is 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. Forty-eight percent of barn structure fires occurred in the Midwest and thirty-two percent occurred in the South in 2002 – 2005 (Flynn, 2008). 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:
- Hay and straw
- Bedding material (especially sawdust and shredded newspaper)
- Cobwebs, dust, and grain dust
- Horse blankets
- Pesticides and herbicides
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 degrees Fahrenheit, the hay needs to be checked regularly. If the temperature climbs to 175 degrees Fahrenheit or higher, call the fire department.
Accelerants – 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 just 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 accelrants include:
- Aerosol cans
- Paint thinner
- Charcoal lighter fluid
Ignition Sources – An ignition source is something that can cause an accelerant or flammable material to ignite or smolder. Examples of ignition sources are:
- Cigarettes and matches
- Sparks from welding machines and machinery (trucks, tractors, mowers)
- Electrical appliances
- Fence chargers
- Electrical fixtures and wires
- Broken glass
- Chemicals which may react with each other or with water or dampness
Roadways and Farm Access
- Roads and driveways should be wide, free of deep ruts and bumps.
- Low hanging tree branches and shrubs should be trimmed back.
- Gates should be wide enough for machinery and trucks, and set far enough back so that vehicles are off the main road when stopping to open or close gates. Overhead wires should be high enough for trucks, trailers, tractors, and other equipment to pass under.
- There should be 10-foot wide fire/emergency lanes around all buildings and structures.
- Vehicles should only park in designated areas to keep roadways open for emergency vehicles.
- Vehicle and trailer parking should not be permitted next to barn/stable.
- Vehicular traffic should proceed slowly and with caution.
- Speed limit signs of 15 mph or lower should be posted and enforced. “Caution: Horse Crossing” signs are available through many retailers.
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:
- Limiting the number of stalls in a center aisle barn between entrances and exits; consider putting an entrance/exit midway down a row of stalls, for example.
- Use of approved fire doors.
- Placement of a fire wall between hay/bedding storage and the actual stabling area.
- Use of materials that are flame retardant or fire resistant.
- Use of fire retardant latex paint – preferably two coats.
- Installation of smoke detectors, fire alarms, and sprinkler systems – all of which can be monitored by local police or fire departments.
- Use of trickle-charged battery powered emergency lighting to permit evacuation of people and animals in case of power failure.
- Presence of a water source on the premises, especially a pond, will help the fire department to save buildings. Trucking in water from a distance if a water hydrant is not available is time-consuming. Remember to have the water source properly fenced to keep “unwanted” visitors out.
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.
- Avoid areas of excessive moisture for the location of the main electrical panel box.
- Place panel box in the driest, most dust free area possible. (Stall areas are not recommended; place in tack room or utility room.)
- Panel box should be corrosion-resistant and weather-proofed even if installed inside a building.
- Outlets and switch boxes should be made of metal and have dust- and water-tight spring-loaded covers that close when released. Ground fault receptacles should be utilized for all outlets.
- Wires should be encased in metal conduit pipe. Even temporary wires (such as extension cords to a tank heater) should be run through conduit pipe to keep the wires safe from breakage and away from the teeth of horses, livestock and rodents, and shoes of horses. An external switch should be installed that will cut off all electrical power to the barn, without affecting other buildings, in the case of an emergency.
- Light fixtures, fluorescent lights, and insect control devices should have dust- and moisture-resistant covers. Incandescent bulbs should have gloves with seals that are dust- and moisture-proof, surrounded by a globe cage to prevent accidental breakage.
- Motors — such as the type used for circulation fans, water pumps or hay elevators should have moisture- and dust-proof on/off switches.
- Motors should not be within 18 inches of any combustible material such as hay or bedding. A fire-resistant shield should be placed around such material to protect it from any heat given off by a motor.
- Electric fence units can be potential fire hazards, especially if the units are of the continuous current type. Use only UL listed units that are of the solid state transistor-type, with intermittent current. Fence-line units should be 10 feet from buildings and enclosed in a weather-proof structure.
- Any appliances used in the barn (e.g. clippers, dryers, vacuums) should be UL-approved and grounded. Appliances with broken, frayed cords or bent plugs should not be used until properly repaired. (Wrapping the cord in electrical tape is not a proper method of repairing a frayed cord.) All appliances should be disconnected when not in use.
- Portable heaters should not be used in the barn area. If they are used in tack rooms, heater units should not be left unattended and should be turned off when you leave the room. Many of these heaters do not contain safety devices, which prevent overheating.
- Do not place portable space heaters near livestock where they may be knocked over. Heaters should have a shut-off device that activates if the unit is tipped.
- Improperly utilized heat lamps are a major source of barn fires. They are often placed too close to hay and bedding which may ignite quite easily from the heat. Never use extension cords with heat lamps.
- Heat tapes, heated automatic water tanks, and water tank heaters must have a thermostat and be UL listed. All heating devices should be installed and used following manufacturer instructions. Tank heater cords and heat tapes should be adequately protected so that animals (horses, livestock, cats, dogs, rodents) cannot easily chew through them and cause electrocution, electrical shocks or a barn fire. Heat tapes should be protected with a fire-retardant insulation material.
General Fire Safety Precautions
- Smoking should never be permitted in any barn, hay/bedding storage area, tack room, or lounge. “No-Smoking” signs should be posted in these areas and at all exterior entrances. Butt cans should be provided as an incentive to extinguish all cigarettes.
- Exit doors should be clearly marked.
- Aisles should be raked or swept clean of hay and bedding. Vacuum up cobwebs and dust regularly. Wipe dust/dirt off light fixtures, outlet covers, switches and panel boxes.
- Weeds, twigs, and other trash should be kept mowed or picked up from around the outside of the barn.
- Manure piles should be at least 20 feet away from the barn to reduce the chance of combustion fire.
- Hay/bedding storage should not be near lights, fans, electrical boxes, heaters or outlets.
- When storing newly baled hay, the temperature should be monitored. Adequate ventilation should be provided for additional drying of the hay. If too much heat builds up, spontaneous combustion can occur. (Never purchase hay that is hot – because it can mean that it was baled too wet. In addition to being a fire hazard, the hay may turn moldy, making it unpalatable and unhealthy for horses to eat.)
- Flammable substances should be kept away from the barn.
- Store vehicles and machinery in a separate building.
- If a vehicle is being driven through the barn, during stall cleaning for example, care should be taken not to block horses in stalls.
- A halter and lead shank for each horse should be hung on all stall door fronts in case of an emergency.
- A fire hose and buckets should be available and kept for this purpose only.
- Practice fire drills should be held so employees and boarders are familiar with their responsibilities should a real fire occur.
The Lightning Protection Institute estimated that 41 percent 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.
- Buildings should be equipped with professionally installed lightning rods of copper or aluminum. The system should be properly grounded.
- All pipes, water systems, electrical systems and telephone lines should also be grounded.
- Contact a professional company for proper maintenance and installation.
- Information on proper lightning precautions for your livestock structure can be obtained from the Lightning Protection Institute, www.lightning.org.
- ABC (all class) dry-chemical fire extinguishers should be in all livestock buildings, workshops, or wherever welding is done.
- The extinguisher should be 5 lbs. minimum. 10 lbs. is ideal.
- Even if a unit is only partially discharged, the extinguisher must be recharged.
- Extinguishers should be checked at least annually to assure that they are in good working order.
- A fire extinguisher should be hanging at all exterior doorways, in the middle of long aisles, and next to the electrical panel box.
- Signs denoting placement of fire extinguishers should be highly visible.
- Consider covering fire extinguishers with a luminescent cover clearly marked “FIRE.”
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 http://equisearch.com/advice/how_to/eqfire688/index.html.
- Lightning Protection Institute. www.lightning.org
- 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.
Other Related Rutgers Cooperative Extension Fact Sheets
Hamilton, George C. “Storage of Pesticides and Their Containers.” 1988. Rutgers Cooperative Extension Fact Sheet FS 320.
Ponessa, Joseph T. “Ground Fault Circuit Interrupters Offer Improved Electrical Safety.” 1986. Rutgers Cooperative Extension Fact Sheet FS162.
Margentino, Marjorie R., Karyn Malinowski, and Sara R. Malone. “Safety Recommendations for the Stable, Barnyard, and Horse/Livestock Structures.” 2007. Rutgers Cooperative Extension Fact Sheet FS 606.
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.
© 2007 by Rutgers Cooperative Extension, NJAES, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey.