Barn Fire Safety: Prevent Your Outbuildings From Going Up in Flames

Understanding fire behavior and prevention in addition to developing your own evacuation plan are all part of comprehensive fire safety on a farm.

by Leslie J. Wyatt
PHOTO: Shutterstock

As the wise Benjamin Franklin—in addition to my mother—was fond of saying, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” It’s sound advice, but what I never knew about that quote, which originally appeared in the Feb. 4, 1735, edition of the Pennsylvania Gazette, is that while my mom was talking about being cautious, Franklin was talking about fire prevention. Though he was on a mission to make houses in Philadelphia safe from fire, I’m sure he’d endorse adopting the same adage for fireproofing barns.

The Nature of Fire

First, think about fire itself: A fire has phases, and when a fuel source comes in contact with an ignition source—a spark or high heat—you have everything you need for phase one, the incipient phase.

“Oxygen availability, fuel type and physical arrangement are factors that determine the length of the smoldering process,” according to PennState Extension’s Fire Safety in Horse Stables, prepared by Jennifer Smith Zajaczkowski, a senior research technologist in agricultural and biological engineering, and Eileen Wheeler, associate professor of agricultural and biological engineering. “Smoldering can last from just minutes to hours. Fires caught during this stage have the greatest chance of being controlled with minimal damage but are still extremely dangerous.”

Low-temperature fires produce the most visible smoke.

“Smoke and heat are the fire’s killing attributes,” write Zajaczkowski and Wheeler. “Smoke contains noxious gases and vapors specific to the fuel. The most common products of combustion (fire) are carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide. As the fire consumes the available oxygen in the room, it releases carbon monoxide. When inhaled, carbon monoxide combines with blood hemoglobin more readily than oxygen would, resulting in suffocation, even if an adequate supply of oxygen is available.” Smoke doesn’t have to be thick and dark to have a high level of carbon monoxide.

If not extinguished, heat will continue to increase and the smoldering fuel will generate enough heat to break into phase two, active flames. In the active phase, temperatures can quickly climb to hotter than 1,800 degrees F.

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If not brought under control during the active phase, fire will reach what is called the flashpoint, in which temperatures are so high that all combustibles within the barn simultaneously ignite.

At this point, chances of survival within the barn are slim, and you might as well write off the contents and perhaps the structure itself as well. Clearly, preventing barn fires is a crucial consideration. Here are five ways hobby farmers can apply a few ounces of prevention to minimize the chance of barn fires and help ensure property and animal safety.

Fire Extinguishers

Install fire extinguishers inside the barn as well as one outside each exit. The extinguisher should be 5 pounds minimum, while 10 pounds is ideal. ABC-rated extinguishers are multipurpose and cover electrical, regular and liquid combustibles.

“Type A extinguishers are for use on fires from ordinary combustibles—wood, cloth, paper, rubber and plastics,” says fire department officer Laurie Loveman in Making Your Horse Barn Fire Safe, a booklet for The Humane Society of the United States. “Type B extinguishers can be used on flammable liquid fires—gasoline, oil, grease, tar, oil-based paint, lacquer and flammable gases. Type C extinguishers are for use on energized (current-carrying) electrical wiring, fuse boxes, circuit breakers, machinery and appliances.”

Minimize Fuel Sources

Store hay and combustibles in separate buildings, keeping only a few days’ supply conveniently close. It might be a hassle but so is dealing with a barn fire.

Keep exterior grass and weeds low, creating a minimum of 50 feet of defensible space around the barn’s perimeter, and routinely clean out dust around electrical outlets. Accumulated dust is a fire hazard, easily ignited.

Avoid wood shavings, opting for less flammable bedding or flooring options, and never store combustibles such as paint, gas or diesel in the barn. All that accumulating baling twine hanging on the wall “in case of need?” It’s also a fire hazard.

Inspect/Update the Electrical System

Often, breaker boxes in older barns are inadequate, overloading and creating potential for fire.

“All electrical wiring should be professionally installed and inspected,” according to Fernanda Camargo at the University of Kentucky’s Department of Animal and Food Sciences and Essie Rogers of the Kentucky Horse Council, in Preventing Barn Fire: Tips for Horse Owners. “Electric wiring throughout the barn should be encased in conduit. The circuit breaker box should be installed away from the barn exits. All barn lights should be caged and designed for barn use.”

While conduit is expensive, older wiring can become compromised, and even newer systems are not immune to the teeth of mice. Unplug all electrical devices when not in use.

Also, when it comes to fire safety, stringing extension cords hither and yon is a really bad idea. Avoid heaters and heat lamps hot enough to cause combustion.

“Water bucket heaters create fire risk because they heat as long as they are turned on,” write Camargo and Rogers. “Once the water bucket is empty, the water heater will continue heating and could melt plastic water buckets and ignite stall bedding and hay.”

Install Smoke Detectors

When I look at the barn on the ranch of my childhood, it’s a wonder it’s still standing, what with all the prevention we overlooked, such as smoke alarms. These can alert you to fires in the incipient stage, saving life and property.

Be aware that house alarms react to dust as if it were smoke. Barn alarms, on the other hand, react to heat, flame or infrared intrusion, such as fire. Furthermore, you’ll also want a loud, external siren or indicator you can hear from the house, should the barn alarm go off.

Water Source Access

Some farmers have natural or artificial ponds near their barns that can be drawn from should fire trucks be necessary, and meanwhile, ponds are great for swimming and fishing. But pond or no, having an outside water source by your barn is definitely fire prevention.

In addition, install a sprinkler system to prevent serious loss from a fire. Granted, a sprinkler system can be expensive, and you’ll need adequate water pressure to operate one. But if you plan a barn, renovate one or want to ensure preparedness, consider a sprinkler system. It’s a hugely beneficial move.

Many if not most barn fires will be caused by human error. If you would like help in planning for an emergency, contact your local fire department. The bottom line? When it comes to fire prevention in the barn, you can never be too careful. Here are more things to consider:

  • Never allow smoking or open sources of ignition in your barn, such as candles, oil lamps and propane heaters.
  • Remember that vehicles and machines can backfire, causing sparks, igniting fuel sources.
  • Keep all exits clear.
  • Have an evacuation plan ahead of time. (See “Evacuation 101” below.)
  • Use common sense, applying those ounces of prevention liberally.

Your barn will be safer, your animals and investment more secure, and if ol’ Ben knew, I’m certain he would be proud.


Sometimes it’s not the barn that’s on fire; it’s the ground around it. If you live in a potential wildfire area, plan where your animals will be transferred and how you will deliver them should you be ordered to evacuate.

But if wildfire moves too fast, there might not be enough time to load trailers and haul livestock out of the area. You might only have enough time to open gates and empty the barn, trusting that the animals will find their way to safer ground.

On such an occasion, long-time rancher and horse owner Susie Thompson advises keeping a wax cattle marker on hand to write your phone number on your horses’ and/or cattle’s sides prior to releasing them, so whoever finds them can call you to come claim them. For sheep, nontoxic spray paint is a good choice.

Evacuation 101

Many of us don’t think clearly in high-adrenaline moments. An evacuation plan created ahead of time will help ensure that you know exactly how to respond in the event of a barn fire.

Before the Fact

  • Plan exits and routinely practice using them.
  • Ensure that your barn has two exits so you have more than one option for stock rescue.
  • Practice taking horses/stock through all exits so that in the event of fire they’ll be familiar with more than one doorway.
  • Agree on who will do what. Precious minutes can be lost trying to get each other to agree. Avoid confusion by making the plan as simple as possible.
  • Decide who will call 911 or the fire department.
  • Decide who will go into the barn for the animals and who stays outside to receive each rescue. The animals will probably be panicked and difficult to control, so only experienced individuals should assist. Children should never be involved in fire rescue/evacuation attempts.
  • Hang halters and lead ropes outside the barn for ease of access.
  • If you like to hang each animal’s tack beside individual stalls, keep well-fitting duplicates in an easy-to-access exterior location.
  • Designate a holding area for evacuated animals.
  • Rescued animals should be contained far enough from the barn that they aren’t endangered by smoke and flames. This will also help prevent them from running over people, getting in the way of fire trucks and personnel, or running back into the barn in confusion.

Order of Operations

  1. Call 911 to get the fire department coming your way.
  2. Get people out of your barn first, then animals, but only if you can do so without risking human lives.
  3. Assuming you can do so safely, remove livestock one at a time, starting with those closest to the exit first.
  4. Shut off electrical power at the outside pole in case the fire is electrical in nature. This also avoids the risk of water contacting live wiring.
  5. Use fire extinguishers or hoses if you can do so without endangerment.
  6. When the members of the fire crew arrive, let them take over.

This story originally appeared in the September/October 2017 issue of Hobby Farms.

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