Fire damage to horse stables can be minimized or prevented through building techniques, fire detection, and management practices.
Many of us know the legend of Catherine O'Leary's infamous cow accused of kicking over a lantern and starting a barn fire on the night of October 8, 1871, leveling three square miles of Chicago. A barn fire in today's world is not likely to destroy a city, although it is likely to devastate the barn. In the blink of an eye, a fire can destroy a barn structure and all its occupants, while the owners stand by helplessly. Many advances in residential fire protection have been made, but protecting barns is much more difficult because of their harsh environment and housing requirements of the horses in them.
How a Fire Behaves
A fire occurs when a fuel source comes in contact with an ignition source. A fuel source can be any item that contains wood, plant material, plastic, paper, fabric, combustible fuel, etc. After contact with the ignition source (anything that would cause the fuel to burn, e.g., spark, intense heat), the fuel starts to smolder. Oxygen availability, fuel type, and physical arrangement are factors that determine the length of the smoldering process. Smoldering can vary from minutes to hours. Fires caught during this stage have the greatest chances of being controlled with minimal damage, but are still extremely dangerous. Smoldering fires may also be difficult to detect and completely extinguish, especially with smoldering hay or wood shavings, when the fuel itself helps to insulate the fire and prevent water penetration. The time it takes a fire to grow and spread is again related to a number of factors, such as the fuel source, the fire temperature, and the time the fire has to burn.
Fire Prevention Is the Best Protection
There is no such thing as a fireproof building, especially in agricultural settings. Building design, management, and safety practices are the best way to minimize the risk of fires. It has been estimated that the root cause of 95 percent of preventable horse barn fires is from careless smoking, with faulty electrical systems high on the list. Fires can grow quickly and give no warning. In most cases, if you see flames, it is already too late. The damage a fire causes grows exponentially with the amount of time it has burned. Fire is extremely dangerous at any stage of growth and controlling it is best left up to the professionals. Most barn fires occur in the winter when most forage and bedding is stored, electrical use is high, and equipment repairs and upgrades are traditionally made. Most of the components in a horse barn are highly flammable. Stall walls are frequently constructed with wood and horses are usually standing in ample amounts of dried bedding, eating dried forages.
Smoke and heat production in- crease as the fire smolders. By the end of this smoldering or "incipient" phase, enough heat has been generated to produce flames. Once flames are present, the fire is extremely dangerous and unpredictable. It grows rapidly and the heat produced be- comes intense. The capabilities of fire extinguishers as a line of defense will soon be surpassed. After flame eruption it only takes a few minutes for ceiling temperatures to exceed 1,800oF. As ceiling temperatures continue to rise, the building acts as a boiler and the "flash point" is soon reached. When fire has reached the flash point, often in as little as 3 to 5 minutes, the hot air temperature simultaneously ignites all combustibles within the space. At flash point, survival within the structure is unlikely, and the building contents are destroyed.
Smoke is produced in the earliest stages of fire development. The color and density of the smoke is dependent on fuel and burning conditions. Low-temperature fires produce more visible smoke particles, creating darker, thicker smoke, whereas hotter fires have smaller particles in the smoke, making it less visible. Smoke and heat are the fire's killing attributes. 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.
Elevated levels of carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide increase respiration in an attempt to obtain more oxygen, resulting in the inhalation of more deadly gases. The consequences are swift thorough incapacitation and asphyxiation. Bodily harm from smoke is increased by its intense heat. When this super-heated mass of gases is inhaled, the respiratory tract will be seared. Smoke damage can occur even before flames are visible.
Once all available fuel sources have been used, the fire will "burn out." Unfortunately, this is not necessarily the end of the fire. Barns and agricultural buildings often contain large quantities of fuel sources that can be impervious to water (e.g., hay, petroleum fuels, and fertilizers). It is common for some of these fuel sources to remain unburned during the initial fire, then continue to smolder. These smoldering pockets often re-ignite or "re-kindle" another fire, requiring another visit from the fire department.
The Best Way to Prevent Fire Is to Minimize Fuel Sources
• Keep the grass mowed and the weeds down to improve the aesthetics and eliminate a frequently overlooked fuel source (dried plant materials).
• Store hay, bedding, and equipment in a separate section of the barn or, preferably, in its own building.
• Remove less frequently used combustibles from the stable. Store all combustibles properly and be sure to provide appropriate receptacles to dispose of rags soiled with combustibles.
• Keep the barn clean and free of cobwebs, chaff, and dust, which are easily combustible and make excellent fuel sources.
• An ignition source includes the obvious cigarettes and heaters to those not so obvious, such as machinery exhaust systems. Trucks driven into the hay/bedding storage area have been known to ignite materials in contact with the hot exhaust and catalytic converters. Space heaters should only be used according to the manufacturer's guidelines and should not be left unattended.
• Post and enforce a NO SMOKING policy. All smoking should be banned from the barn and immediate premises. If smokers do frequent the barn, provide them with a smoking area away from the barn that is equipped with a receptacle for butts and matches.