Safety and Precautions for Preventing Horse Barn Fires

Updated July 26, 2023 | By Dr. Lydia Gray, SmartPak Staff Veterinarian/Medical Director, with Dr. Rebecca Gimenez, Technical Large Animal Emergency Rescue, Inc (TLAER) President and Primary Instructor
A person leading horse away from a fire.

Horse barn fires occur all over the U.S. at various times of the year – there seems to be little predictability to season, location, economic conditions, or facility type other than what would be expected. That is, causes of barn fires in cold weather are often due to faulty heaters, while causes of fires in warm weather can many times be traced back to fans.

As the number one local emergency expected to affect agricultural facilities, barn fires kill more horses than any other type of disaster. While building a fireproof barn is not realistic, there are strong measures that can be taken to reduce the chance of an incident at your facility or the facility where you board your horse.

Causes of Barn Fires

One analysis of horse barn fires showed that of 203 fires, 199 of them or 98% were preventable. Fire investigation experts estimate that 80 to 85% of horse barn fires are caused by accidents, human error, and electrical malfunctions. Although there is no national reporting system for barn fires, in one study the causes of fires were (in descending order):

  • electrical
  • suspected or confirmed arson
  • lightning strike
  • light-fixture malfunction
  • electrical heater malfunction
  • overheated electrical cord attached to a fan
  • hay ignited by a heat lamp
  • lawn tractor malfunction which was stored in the barn
  • dropped cigarettes
  • sparks from a welder

Fire Behavior

A fire requires three things to burn:

  1. an ignition source (spark or intense heat)
  2. a fuel source (combustible material)
  3. oxygen

Ignition sources in horse barns include electrical malfunction, lightning, green hay and improperly composted manure, tractors and vehicles, cigarettes, and welder sparks.

Barns are one, giant, fuel source, as the hay, bedding, manure, and even the building structure itself are all combustible materials. While it is not practical to free a barn of combustible materials like hay and bedding, it is possible to choose forms of bedding that have a lower combustibility rating (such as shavings) over others with a higher combustibility rating (such as straw).

Experiments on the combustibility of straw have shown the following:

  • Straw bedding reaches a burning temperature of 300⁰ F in 1 to 5 minutes, during which time it will burn an area 10ft in diameter and develop as much heat and burn at the same rate as gasoline.
  • Tests in a 12 X 12 stall, using two bales of straw, showed that it took just 1 minute (60 seconds) for these fast, clean-burning fires to create air temperatures of 374⁰ F 15 feet above the floor.

A general observation of fire behavior is that after flame eruption, it may take only minutes for temperatures to exceed 1800⁰ F at the level of the ceiling and 3 to 5 minutes to approach the flash point at which all combustibles within that space of superheated air will ignite. In other words, the hay stored in a barn and loft will start burning, increasing the fuel feeding the fire.

White fencing in front of a barn smoking on fire in the distance.

Health Aspects of a Horse Barn Fire

Given these facts, the unfortunate reality is that when a fire starts, a horse in a stall seldom has more than 30 seconds to be rescued before suffering fatal internal damage from heat and smoke inhalation.

Living things usually cannot survive more than short exposure to 150⁰ F and higher heat, with the searing heat quickly destroying delicate tissues of the lungs. For this reason, humans and animals must be rescued out of a burning stall within 30 seconds for no injury to have occurred – after 30 seconds, some injury has occurred. After 1 minute, the lungs are seared, and the human or animal begins to suffocate or asphyxiate. By 3 minutes, the human or animal has died. That said, most horses die of smoke inhalation in a barn fire.

Additionally, animals removed from burning buildings have been reported to appear medically stable for days but then crash with severe pneumonia. Some animals rescued from barn fires will need to be aggressively treated or euthanized based on the extent of their internal (invisible) or external (visible) injuries.

A person standing with a horse in front of a dumpster filled with rubble from a fire.

Internal injuries include damage from toxins that are released by the process of burning and that causes severe damage to lungs. Carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide are common toxic byproducts of fires; when inhaled, they block the absorption of oxygen at the level of the hemoglobin in the blood, which causes asphyxiation.

Flames do not necessarily need to be visible for this to occur and remember that both carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide are odorless, colorless gases. For these reasons, it is strongly recommended that any animal that has been exposed to fire or smoke be immediately evaluated by a veterinarian rather than waiting for any signs to appear – such as coughing.

Fire Protection Strategies

A firefighter leading a horse through a smoky barn.

Prevention and Preparation

Since a great percentage of barn fires are fully involved within 5 to 7 minutes of ignition – leading to a total loss of the facility and everything within it — the priority should be to proactively take steps to prevent a barn fire in the first place. Prevention and preparation strategies include:

  • Working closely with your local first responders to incorporate “best practices” into property and building layout and design
  • Installing early warning systems and proven suppression methods (sprinklers!)
  • Having written evacuation plans (that are regularly practiced by all employees and clients)
  • Using good barn storage habits, which means separating ignition sources from combustibles
  • Taking fire safety into consideration when building or retrofitting barns, including looking at “flame-spread rating,” “smoke development rating,” and “fire rating” when choosing materials
  • Keeping the electrical service up-to-date and within code, having it regularly inspected, and “playing it safe” around electric wiring, cords, appliances, and fixtures
  • Having all the tools and equipment you need, in good working order, when fire occurs

Suppression and Survivability

Many barn fires are a complete and total loss – horses, buildings, tack, vehicles, equipment – because of two factors unique to rural areas:

  • emergency response times are greater because of longer travel distances and volunteer status of fire departments
  • fires may burn longer before being noticed because of lower population densities and traffic

Therefore, methods that allow fires to be slowed – such as barn design, construction materials, and suppression systems – should be used to save time for the local fire department to respond and for people, animals, and structures to be protected.

Incorporating the concept of “compartmentalization” in barn design is one way to slow the burn rate and spread. It involves using fire walls or fire-resistant barriers between barn sections, high ceiling heights, and large room volumes as well as physically separating ignition sources from combustibles.

For example, hay has traditionally been stored in the “hay loft” above the horse’s stalls, but we now know that hay should never be stored overhead in a barn as it provides a fuel source for fires and speeds the spread. When building a barn, consider using masonry, heavy timber, and fire-retardant wood (or sprays) as construction materials since it takes longer for flames to spread across their surfaces.

Suppression systems include automatic sprinkler systems and human-controlled fire extinguishers. Sprinklers have proven to be the single best method of fire suppression in any type of facility, providing time for first responders to arrive and attempt rescuing trapped horses as well as preventing spread of the fire and lessening property and equipment damage.

So, the question is not whether a sprinkler system should be installed, but what type of system is best. Note that many insurance companies will cut premiums by as much as 50% for barns with sprinklers, and that this is a depreciable expense.

Another suppression method that is commonly misunderstood is fire extinguishers. The proper class and weight of regularly maintained fire extinguisher should be located at each entry/exit to the barn, and all personnel should feel comfortable handing and using this piece of equipment.

However, people without proper fire protection clothing, respiratory protection, and training should never enter smoking or burning barn structures, especially down the center aisle. That is why it is so important that barns be designed so that each stall has a door opening to the inside of the structure and a second door opening to the outside of the structure. An even better option is to put paddocks outside each door. Then the responder can open the door, let the horse out, and shut the door, quickly confining the animal outside the building which saves valuable time and allows more horses to be saved.

Key Takeaways

Barn fires are tragic events that cannot be completely eradicated but can be greatly reduced in occurrence. The number one priority should always be human safety and health, including for the barn personnel, horse owners, first responders, veterinarian, and bystanders. Traditional building designs and management practices need to change to increase the success of detection, suppression, and response by fire departments.

Together with preventive actions to decrease the severity of an event and immediate suppression techniques, a well-planned facility and/or property strategy can significantly reduce potential losses in both equine life and property.

A girl hugging a grey horse.
Cloud, a barn fire survivor.

Barn Fire Prevention and Preparation Checklists

Work with local first responders and use these best practices:

  • Invite the local fire department to visit the facility and point out problems with fire prevention.
  • Make sure large fire trucks can get to the barn down the driveway.
  • Clear a path to a pond, lake, or hydrant (if there is one) for fire department vehicles.
  • Place fire extinguishers at both ends of the barn and in the middle.
  • Inspect fire extinguishers regularly and make sure people know how to use them properly.
  • Include smoke alarms, flame detectors, heat “rate of rise” detectors, sprinkler systems, and carbon monoxide alarm as part of the fire prevention system.
  • Write down and then practice an evacuation plan at least monthly, with all boarders and personnel that visit or work at the facility.
  • Train horses to deal with noise, bright flashing lights, etc. during simulated evacuations.

Practice good barn storage and cleaning habits:

hay bales stacked in a building
  • Ensure there is plenty of ventilation under, over, and around hay storage, and that it is properly dried and cured. A separate hay barn is even better.
  • Compost away from the barn and ensure manure is properly turned.
  • Keep barns clean and free of dust, cobwebs, trash, oily tack or hoof cleaning rags, soiled paper towels and other easily ignited fire hazards.
  • Store hay, bedding, gasoline, oil products, scrap wood, tractors, and vehicles in separate building locations.
  • Minimize obstacles in the aisle.
  • Consider alternate bedding choices to straw that will slow the development of smoke and flames.
  • Be aware that aerosol spray cans left in the sun can build up heat and pressure and explode, as can flammable liquids (such as alcohol) that are kept in tight spaces like tack boxes.
  • Set up “No Smoking” signs and designate a smoking area outside away from the barn (with sand buckets for cigarette butts).

Build responsibly:

  • Build the barn out of the most non-combustible materials affordable (metal siding, concrete block walls, fire retardant treated lumber, fire-resistant insulation).
  • Put up a solid, non-flammable wall anywhere possible to compartmentalize the building and delay a fire.
  • Provide two exits for horses – build stall doors that lead to the outside as well as the inside of the barn (and then build small paddocks outside each stall).
  • Outfit tack rooms, lounges, and apartments in the barn to the life-safety code level.

Respect electricity:

an electric switch
  • Install a grounded lightning rod system to protect the barn during electrical storms.
  • Periodically have a certified electrician check and update the electrical system.
  • Place electrical service boxes in a dry, dust-free location, mounted on fire-resistant materials.
  • Ensure electrical wires are in conduit and to the fire codes used for commercial buildings.
  • Hire a professional electrician to evaluate old wiring.
  • Check the wiring for all appliances and light fixtures including bucket and tank heaters.
  • Minimize the use of extension cords.
  • Turn off and disconnect all appliances when no one is in the building (coffee makers, hot water heaters, vacuums, heaters, fans, radios, etc.) or make sure they are safely wired to turn off or pop a fuse if overheated.
  • Keep light fixtures free of dust, cobwebs, chaff, and other combustible materials.
  • Clean the dust out of electrical appliances such as fans and heaters.
  • Locate heaters and heat lamps away from combustibles, high traffic areas, and out of reach of animals and children.
  • Do not run electric cords over nails as hangers.
  • Install a main shut off switch near the entrance/exit so that anyone responding to a fire can turn off the power to the barn.

Always be prepared:

  • Leave a leather halter and lead rope by each horse’s stall and on the outside door.
  • Provide a phone in or near the barn to call the fire department.
  • Purchase a cell phone, flashlights, extra batteries, and a portable generator as resources for an emergency.
  • Stall the most valuable, oldest, weakest, or most-likely-to-panic horses so they can be removed first from the barn.
  • Install as many “Exit” signs as possible to improve the chances of getting people and animals out.
  • Remove obstacles from barn aisles for quick exit by people and animals in case of emergency.

SmartPak strongly encourages you to consult your veterinarian regarding specific questions about your horse's health. This information is not intended to diagnose or treat any disease, and is purely educational.