I woke this morning to gut wrenching news that a big barn in my second-home state of Georgia, USA, had lost 18 horses in a barn fire. My heart and deepest sympathies go out to everyone involved, especially the horses that perished. Yet I cannot help but get downright pissed off, that such stories serve as a sobering reminder that too many innocent horses suffer as a result of human shortfalls in duty and care. Year after year.
Barn fires are DEVASTATING, but they are largely PREVENTABLE…
…but NOT by relying on well-meaning, yet under-informed posts like this one currently being re-circulated, touting modified headcollars as great barn fire “safety measures”.
It’s a common belief that if you leave a halter and lead line on your horse’s stall, in the event of a fire, a firefighter or first responder can halter and lead your horse out of the barn to safety. It’s what I believed up until a couple of years ago. What I learned through research and TLAER training is that in reality, it’s just not that simple, I wish it were. In fact it’s a dangerous myth that needs to be committed to the ashes.
Admittedly, easy slip halters come in handy, they were an integral part of a good barn management plan when I grew up. However, I want people to be FULLY aware that if they are overlooking barn safety mitigation and early detection and fire suppression systems for the old halter on the door method, they are giving themselves FALSE HOPE, and putting the lives of horses and people at risk.
First, a bit of a reality check. A burned horse is something you never want to experience. They look like a plasticized carousel horse, and the smell will imprint onto your nostrils until eternity (this is actually a horse found after a bush fire, but same effect).
All too often, we will spend fortunes on unnecessary barns, designed and built with human comfort and convenience in mind, and don’t give a thought to early detection or fire suppression systems. The usual excuse is ‘well they’re too expensive’ …just spent a few hundred $$$ on a barn and cannot ‘justify’ an early detection & sprinkler system that’s about 10% of the overall cost…NO EXCUSE!!
So, why are early detection/barn fire suppression systems worth the investment?
Quite simply, they SAVE LIVES and there is NO price you can put on that. Yet still, many people have not even given it a thought. If you speak to someone who has been through the devastation a barn fire brings, you’ll soon realize, such preventative fire safety measures are as critical as the foundations upon which the barn is built.
In an ideal world, horses would not be subject to being locked in individual cages, AKA stalls/stables/loose boxes. However, that’s an issue for another time. We live in the real world and that’s far from ideal for many horses, so the VERY LEAST we can do is take measures to be responsible for their safety and welfare whilst they are subject to our imposed confines.
How common are barn fires?
Quoting from a presentation given at the 2008 American Association of Equine Practitioners conference, by leading expert in this field, Dr Rebecca Gimenez, “barn fires are the No 1. local emergency that affects everyone from horse owners to veterinarians, and property owners to the horses themselves. Barn fires kill more horses annually than any other type of nonmedical emergency. Of 11,500 agricultural storage facility fires per year, 88% are barns or stables with animals, resulting in about $250 million in property losses annually. In 87 horse-barn fire incidents reported in 2006 and 2007, 461 horses died and an unknown number were injured.”
Although actual barn fire statistics go grossly under-reported, we know that each year hundreds of animals die in largely preventable barn fires. Stables tend to be wooden structures that are well-ventilated (ideal for horse health and feeding fires!) and filled chock-a-block full of highly combustible materials. Although this seems pretty obvious, in most cases where a barn fire has occurred, owners believed their barns were not at risk of fire.
The majority of barns burn RAPIDLY, giving you a window of about 3-5 minutes to get all humans and animals out safely. This means, unless you live next door to the Fire Department you’re likely to be the one doing the rescuing! So, how informed and prepared are you?
When are fires more likely to happen?
Well, pretty much anytime really, however, statistics show a greater incidence during the winter months (when heating equipment tends to be used), and also during normal working hours (7am-7pm). It’s estimated that 80-85% of horse barn fires are started accidentally through human error (e.g. smoking cigarettes) or electrical malfunctions. Although not a common cause, arson, i.e. the willful and malicious setting of fire to a structure, accounts for about 15% of barn fires.
A little insight into fire behavior – fascinating but terrifying
For those that paid attention in physics, or just have incendiary tendencies, you’ll remember that a fire requires 3 ingredients to burn:
- Ignition source (spark, flame, intense heat)
- Fuel source
Depending on the availability of these three ingredients, a fuel source can begin to smolder e.g. hay stack, manure pile. It can go like this for hours, producing small amounts of heat that are undetectable to humans or commercial detectors. While these kinds of ‘smoldering’ fires, can be more easily brought under control, they can also be the most difficult to detect and extinguish. Anyone who has tried to extinguish a smoldering hay stack can attest to this.
Straw bedding can reach a burning temperature of 148 °C (300 °F) in one to five minutes, during which time it can burn an area about the size of an average stall. It develops as much heat and burns at the same rate as gasoline! A short exposure to 66°C (151°F) is about all living beings can survive. Anything beyond that and the heat destroys the delicate tissues of the respiratory tract. Injury to these tissues can occur in as little as ONE MINUTE which is why you have about 30-60 SECONDS to rescue a human, horse or other animal from a burning stall. Severe damage to the lungs will result in impaired air exchange and the victim will suffocate. Within THREE minutes of exposure, the victim will be dead.
When flames appear, this indicates more heat is being produced and the fire spreads rapidly. At this point, it may be too late to save any lives. After flame eruption, within minutes temperatures can exceed 982°C (1,800°F) at ceiling level.
Temperatures approach ‘flash point’ within three to five minutes. The flash point is the temperature at which all combustibles in that space of super-heated air will ignite i.e. your barn goes up in flames!
So, if a fire breaks out in your horse’s stall and the fire is less than 1 foot (0.3 meters) in diameter, with a temperature of less than 66°C (150°F), you have 30 SECONDS or less to get your horse out alive and relatively unscathed. After 30 seconds, fatal internal injuries will result due to smoke and heat inhalation. As for the horses in adjoining stalls, you MAY have five to eight minutes to get them out. Fire fighters often report how quiet a barn is when they enter as the animals have quickly succumbed to the effects of smoke and heat inhalation, even though the barn may not be fully engulfed.
Even after a successful extrication, the after effects of smoke can become evident minutes or days after the initial insult. Toxins in the burning materials can induce severe tissue damage when inhaled. For example, carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide block the absorption of oxygen by hemoglobin molecules in the red blood cells, resulting in asphyxiation. The blood continues to circulate but does not carry enough oxygen to sustain life, and animals and humans often succumb later to pneumonia and lung damage.
Easy to see how a modified fire halter bears into insignificance when you understand the reality of fire behavior…it’s even more revealing when you’re faced with the real thing. By then, it’s usually too late.
Understanding horse behavior in barn fires
You cannot readily predict how an individual horse will react when it come to a fire situation and they often react in the exact opposite way to what you thought they would. It is important to remember that horses are prey animals and they instinctively seek safety in a herd. Often horses turned loose will frustratingly turn right around and head back INTO the burning building. To them, this is instinctively their ‘safe’ zone where their other herd members are likely to be. For that reason, ideally, barn doors/gates should be closed after the horse(s) are evacuated.
The other disaster scenario involves loose horses running down the road in survival, get- me-outta-here, blind panic mode, posing a danger to themselves, pedestrians, other vehicles, including emergency responders on their way to the scene. Ideally, you will have a safe designated area accessible by evacuation lane ways leading straight from the barn where containment will not be an additional worry. This is something that needs to be evaluated in your individual fire prevention and response plan.
Smoke induces a panic response in the horse. Mix that with human panic, sirens, lights. firefighters in full Darth Vader getup, & loud fire cracking, and it’s can be a scene of shear confusion and chaos. Two behaviors that are commonly reported are horses trying to climb stall walls in attempt to escape, or standing quietly in the corner as if accepting their fate. Horses that climb the stall walls subject themselves to more dense smoke and are more likely to die. Severe trauma can also occur while trying to climb out, the results of which can be fatal. In general, young horses and stallions are more likely to react in this way. Older horses tend to stand in the corner and do not attempt to escape.
Animals do not voluntarily breathe smoke. They will instinctively seek a window or other clean air source. In mock-up practical demonstrations involving fire crews and simulated smoke, horses are observed sourcing stall windows to get air. If a stall window are not available, the horse lowers his head to get the ‘cleaner air’ at ground level.
So what’s my point here?
While easy-slip halters are a good idea for general use, and really every horse should have one hanging on their door (preferably an outward facing door), the REALITY is people are hiding behind a false sense of security that such ‘simple’ measures will offer a competitive advantage over the potential devastation of a barn fire. If you do not believe me, do a timed mock-up of a barn evacuation, and see how long it takes you to run in, halter every horse, and lead them out. Better still, do an artificial smoke emergency evacuation with your local fire department involved, it will give an eye opening, bone chilling hint of how terrifying the real thing can be.
PREVENTION is the key, and your best chance of a positive outcome is an optimal fire detection/alert/response method. Quality early detection and fire suppression systems such as sprinkler systems are recommended by the National Fire Protection Association. There’s a MUST READ article here for more info.
As horse owners/barn managers, we have a MORAL, ETHICAL, and LEGAL RESPONSIBILITY to ensure we have designed, implemented and PRACTICED appropriate emergency disaster plans for our horses, family or personnel that are likely to be on the property, and any other animals under our care.
Fireproof your barn! Nothing is fail-proof but you can greatly increase the odds of minimizing complete devastation. There are some good tips here to get you started. Contact your local fire department to come do a property and barn assessment…their insight is invaluable.
As with most emergency disaster planning, prevention is the key. Mitigation involves taking steps that will reduce or eliminate the long-term risk to life and property. Potential loss to life (human and equine) and property can be significantly reduced with good preventative measures in place.
After all the training, research, experiences, opinions, insights I’ve engulfed on barn fires over the years, I have an overwhelmingly simple suggestion that, to me, stands out like the proverbial elephant in the room….don’t house the horse in a bloody barn in the first place!!!
The most straight-forward, sensible, cost-effective, life saving solution is not to keep horses in such human-necessitated cages and potential death traps in the first place. When are we going to get our heads around the fact that traditional barns are nothing more than an outdated method of welfare compromising confinement, designed and built purely with human comfort and convenience in mind. The amount spent building individual stalls could easy be put towards an early detection & suppression system in a well designed group housing/shelter system.
Time to remove our head from the sand and get with the 21 century folks. Let’s start putting a bit of horse sense into our common sense!
For more informed help and guidance on the subject, as well as Large Animal Rescue training opportunities, check out the Technical Large Animal Emergency Rescue (TLAER) FB page.
Anything by Dr Rebecca Gimenez, Michelle Staples & MaryAnne Leighton on the subject of emergency response, to any possible situation, is worth your time, and could save a life.
Great reference books here, here & here!