Barn fires spread quickly and are extremely hot.
"The morning of the fire can easily be described as the worst day of my life. Everything that meant so much was taken away with no warning,” says Wisconsin resident Vickey Hollingsworth.
The memories are as raw today as they were in 2004, when she and her mother lost three horses in a barn fire where they were boarding their horses.
"The feelings are best described as suffocating helplessness. To be only feet away but unable to reach out and save those trapped inside, to watch in shock as the structure collapses on the animals you love so much, there just aren’t words.”
Fire is an ever-present concern on small, rural farms. Because of the distance from help, any structure that ignites could be engulfed in flames before emergency workers arrive.
The National Fire Protection Association, the international nonprofit authority on fire, electrical and building safety, has compiled information from its surveys and studies that shows:
- Cooking equipment is the leading cause of home-structure fires and home-fire injuries.
- Smoking is the leading cause of civilian home-fire deaths.
- Heating equipment ranks second in home-fire deaths overall.
- Heating equipment is the leading cause of fires in barns.
- Barn-structure fires are most frequent in late winter and early spring.
- Barn fires are not small: Half of all barn-structure fires involve the entire building.
Several years ago, Laurie Loveman, author, horse owner and member of the NFPA Technical Committee on Fire Safety in Animal Housing Facilities, began tracking media-reported animal deaths caused by fires in a chart posted on her website.
"I am upset every time I have to add more information to it,” says Loveman. "My original intent was to see what factors were involved—to find patterns. What I found through keeping this chart was that, in almost every instance, animals were dying in preventable fires, and the cost of prevention was very low when compared to economic disruptions. But, economics aside, the emotional toll suffered, not just by owners, but by the firefighters on scene who are subjected to the screams of the dying and the smell of death, can stay with them for the rest of their lives.”
While charming, many older farmhouses harbor fire hazards, such as old, faulty wiring, that could be fixed by a licensed contractor.
Farm Fire Prevention
Fire safety starts with fire prevention. Whether it’s a wildfire or a structure fire, preventing it or limiting its damage takes work and planning. Be prepared with a few simple updates and provisions.
Building and Remodeling
Farmhouses: Old farmhouses can hold particular charm as well as unique fire hazards. Many pre-1940s farmhouses with two or more levels used balloon-frame construction. Instead of being built in post-and-frame style, they were built using studs that ran two or more stories from foundation to eave. The spaces remaining between the studs provide a path for fire to spread. Check with an experienced, licensed contractor: Adding fire stops might be an option for correcting the problem.
Old wiring and fuse boxes designed for simple lighting needs won’t handle today’s electronic cravings. Clothes dryers, dishwashers, water heaters and electronic gadgets in old farmhouses need a system built to handle their modern needs. Adding new wire will only add to the load of the old wires and possibly start a fire in the wall. Putting in a larger amp fuse will not solve the problem and will eliminate the only safety factor, letting a larger flow of current into a system that can’t handle it. Have your system upgraded properly by a trained technician.
If you build new or as you remodel, add fireproofing to construction materials or consider construction materials that are fire-resistant. Farmhouses built of concrete, for example, such as those using Insulated Concrete Forms, may reduce the risks. Concrete does not burn, soften or bend. Consider Class A fire-retardant roofing materials and exterior coverings.
Barn and outbuildings: If you remodel an old barn or outbuilding, updating the electrical system is essential. Have a licensed electrical contractor install plenty of outlets to avoid the use of extension cords in the barn—it doesn’t take long for them to fray, crack or lose the ground prong.
Loveman says misuse of electricity is a major factor in most barn fires. She says the main culprits are electrical malfunctions and the use of nonagricultural-rated box fans, portable heaters and heat lamps.
Make the shutoff switch easily accessible with the ability to cut power to the barn separate from water pumps or other buildings. Loveman suggests enclosing all wiring in metal conduit to protect it from corrosion, animals and other damage. The cut ends of conduit need to be filed smooth so they don’t wear through the wire insulation.
Consider incorporating other fire-prevention methods:
- fire stops
- fire-retardant coatings
- interior wall and ceiling finish materials
- sprinkler systems
- smoke alarms and smoke-suppression systems
- fire alarms
Wood structures are not the only ones susceptible to burning. According to the University of Missouri Extension’s "Improving Fire Resistance of Farm Buildings," there’s a common misconception that metal buildings are "fireproof.” A fire would most likely start with a stored product in these buildings, but the unprotected metal-frame building will fail more quickly than a wooden structure. According to the UM Extension, "As soon as metal structural members get hot, their strength decreases rapidly. The result can be complete structural collapse long before actual flames spread through the building.”
If you’re considering building a new barn, check out "NFPA 150: Standard on Fire and Life Safety in Animal Housing Facilities." The site requires a simple first-time signup for access to the 2009 edition. Its barn-construction advice—from door height and width to using only commercial electrical appliances and not using the barn aisles for permanent storage—is worth reviewing.
Whatever your rural structure, plan your landscaping carefully. Poor positioning and maintenance can help a fire or wildfire spread.
For each structure, start at the building and work your way out, says Michele Steinberg, Firewise Communities program manager for the NFPA. She suggests:
- Ensure roofs, decks, porches and fences are clear of needles, dead leaves and other debris that could ignite from embers or firebrands in a wildfire.
- Make a fuel-free area within 3 to 5 feet of the perimeter of your home and outbuildings. Consider bare earth, river rock or gravel as alternatives to shrubs or grass.
- Keep grass trimmed low within 30 feet of the structures, and keep it well-watered, if possible, during fire season.
- Remove dead or dying trees, shrubs and other plants within 30 to 50 feet of the structure. Thin trees within this area so that crowns are at least 30 feet apart.
- When putting in new landscaping, choose "fire-wise” plants. While all plants can burn, fire-resistant species have moist and supple leaves, water-like sap, and little dead wood; they tend not to accumulate dry material.
Courtesy Brand X Pictures/Brand X Pictures/Thinkstock
Develop and practice a fire escape plan so you know what to do in the event of an emergency.
Whether it’s a structure fire or a wildfire, the keys to a safe evacuation are planning and practicing.
"Talking to your local sheriff and your local fire department is a smart first step,” says Steinberg. "Also check out the ‘Ready, Set, Go!’ tips provided by the International Association of Fire Chiefs.”
If a fire occurs in the house or barn, you may have little time to escape. According to the NFPA, a third of American households who made an estimate thought they would have at least six minutes before a fire in their home would become life-threatening. The actual time available is often considerably less than that estimate.
House Fires and Family Evacuation
In the event of a house fire, keep your family safe with these planning and prevention tips:
- Develop a fire-escape plan and make sure everyone knows it.
- Practice the fire-escape plan during the day and at night without lights.
- Know the best routes for a fire evacuation.
- Designate a place outside the house or a location outside the area as a meeting spot to make sure everyone is OK.
- Have a common contact person outside the area to text or call in case local phone service is down.
- Be aware of "fire weather,” when extremely dry, windy conditions increase burning dangers.
- Don’t try to fight a fire on your own. Prevailing winds can make a small grass or brush fire deadly. Call for help.
Barn Fires and Animal Evacuation
The American Veterinary Medicine Association’s online guide, "Saving the Whole Family," walks you through the steps of a barn-fire evacuation.
To prepare your livestock for fire evacuation, make sure they have received updated vaccinations.
Dr. Heather Case, AVMA coordinator for emergency preparedness and response, suggests these major points to keep in mind:
- Consider what you will do before something happens. "The key and challenge for each hobby farmer is to develop a plan for their specific property and animals,” says Case.
- "Ask if the local fire department could visit your farm to provide a safety check of the facility, to learn access points and to get familiar with the types of animals. Ask questions: If there is a fire in one building, when is it a concern to evacuate your entire property?”
- "Know your animals and how they react,” says Case. "Remain calm because animals will react to how you are reacting.” If possible, move herd animals, such as horses, together.
- Know what transportation resources you have available. Having a trailer (or easy access to one), leashes and leads, and pet carriers for small animals is essential.
- Keep animals current on vaccinations. Keep copies of records in an emergency kit.
- Locate and prearrange an evacuation site for your animals outside your immediate area, such as show grounds, stables, fairgrounds, stockyards or other boarding facilities.
- Determine where on your property you could move animals to keep them safely away from a structure fire or to keep them safe from a wildfire if they cannot be evacuated.
- Properly identify your animals. Case says that could mean anything from microchipping pets to braiding luggage tags into horses’ manes to using a livestock marking pen to write on an animal’s coat. Include an alternative contact outside the area in case local phone service is down.
- Develop a list of police, fire, veterinary and emergency-management contacts.
- Practice your escape and evacuation plans, and refine them. "It may look easy to put animals in carriers but going out and doing it when things are chaotic is something else,” she says. Work with your vet to develop a medical-response kit for your animals.
"It’s a matter of knowing your environment, your animals, your situation and the safest place on your property if relocating is not required or possible,” says Dr. Case.
The Fire Aftermath
The barn fire made Hollingsworth "painfully aware of the vulnerability of life. We hang in the balance between breath and death, and the pendulum swings without warning. In an instant, life can be erased, as if it was never there,” she says.
"For years after the fire, I would wake in the middle of the night in a panic, paralyzed with fear that my house or barn was burning. I would check and double-check and triple-check cords, switches, and breakers, searching for anything that might ignite a blaze. Over the years, the gripping fear has given way to a more healthy form of cognizant vigilance.”
Fire is a potential hazard on any small farm, sparked by anything from weather to human error. Bend the odds in your favor. Give your place a thorough safety review, make necessary changes, and develop plans for what to do in a worst-case scenario.
About the Author: Maureen Blaney Flietner has lived on her hobby farm in east-central Wisconsin for almost 29 years. It is home to her horses, dogs, cats, a large garden and a small orchard, as well as her business, Mavourneen, LLC.