Saturday, December 13, 2008

The topic no one wants to talk about

We just had a local barn fire where 15 boarded horses died (caused by a space heater in the tack room) so I want to talk about this.

Losing a horse in a barn fire is probably my worst nightmare. I fear it more than finding out a horse of mine went to slaughter. I think many horsepeople would agree with me that there's nothing more horrifying than the thought of your horse burning to death locked in a stall. But do you really know how to minimize your chances of this happening? Do you know if your barn, or the one you board at, is a fire risk?

I realized I didn't know much about this. I mean, I knew the obvious - no smoking in the barn, watch out for faulty wiring or outlets that spark. But I didn't know enough, so I decided to do some research and talk about this today.

Check out this great site on preventing barn fires. Read her charts and stats about how often it happens. It'll scare you right out to your barn to start de-cobwebbing.

Some of the basic tips:

1. Never block doors or aisleways. Don't leave the manure spreader parked in the aisle - I know a lot of barns that will do that, because they don't have an equipment storage shed. I know, I know, but just tarp it if you don't. You don't want to be scrambling over a spreader to try to evacuate horses.

2. Barns should have wide enough doors that two handlers with horses can exit simultaneously. Can you open your barn door with one hand if your other is being used to control a panicking horse? I've been in a lot of barns where I had to throw my body against the main door to make it budge.

3. Floor to ceiling dividers every 4 stalls or so in a large barn can prevent fires from spreading. (They are not a bad idea anyway - they give you places to put horses in quarantine, or stallion stalls)

4. Hay storage in a separate building is the ideal but if not possible, hay lofts are preferable to simply storing hay in aisles or stalls. Loveland doesn't comment on the common practice of storing hay in the back of the riding arena. I've always thought that seems fairly safe because fire doesn't spread through dirt with nothing to feed on, but I could be wrong.

5. Electrical appliances like space heaters and coffee makers should be unplugged when not in use. Space heaters should shut off automatically if tipped over. I am hearing reports that the space heater that caused the recent fire was so old it didn't have an automatic shut-off. New ones that do shut off are a whopping $10 at Wal-Mart.

6. For those of you in areas that have brush fires, like southern California, clear the brush from around the barn. Loveland even suggests leaving a 15 foot wide strip of dirt between your pasture and the road because people throw cigarettes out of car windows.

Past that, most of the advice is the common sense we already know (or hopefully do) - watch for hazards like exposed wiring or smoking in the barn. Cobwebs are flammable - it's worth taking the time to remove them. Don't store flammable things in or near the barn - whether it's gasoline for the tractor, a pile of old wood fence or a stack of heating wood.

I had to laugh at this: "Sprinkler systems are effective suppression devices and contrary to commonly-held notions, no person or animal has drowned under the spray, nor panicked as a result of the shower." Ha ha. Typical excuse developed for not doing something that is a good idea but costs money. Now, I'll admit I've never priced out a sprinkler system for a boarding barn so I don't know if the cost is prohibitive -- but it seems to me it might be a pretty good investment if you want to keep your horses as safe as possible.

Read the website - she gives great advice about how to react if you do encounter a fire, to maximize the chances that no lives will be lost. Read the logs - you'll see valuable information about how fires start. How many of you light your show horses 24/7 with auxiliary lights? Do you know that those lights are safe? Are they far enough away that a horse cannot chew on the wiring? Do you, right now, have a heat lamp on baby animals in your barn? Here's one they probably didn't anticipate - "plastic feed sacks set afire after being pulled into generator by foal." All the horses were rescued, that time.

You know, all the fire safety stuff is the sort of routine maintenance that we all get busy and have trouble finding time to do. And it's true, 99% of us are going to dodge the bullet and never have a barn fire. But I don't know anybody who's been in the 1% that has ever really recovered from it - so please put reading this information and taking the advice on your to-do list this holiday. It's one of the nicest holiday presents you can give your horses!