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What causes them; what you can do to prevent them.
Fire strikes fear into the heart of all horse owners. It's fluid and unpredictable, it's fast and it's deadly.

According to the National Fire Protection Association, in a typical year, from 1999-2000, there were approximately 5,800 barn fires. Apart from the staggering financial loss, one person and thousands of animals died – chickens, livestock and horses.

What the NFPA found in investigating these fires was that most were preventable. Barn fire safety specialist Laurie Loveman has been tracking fires on her website, www.laurieloveman.com for several years. Even a cursory glance at the amount listed is chilling – 16 pages of fires in under 2 years.

In order to PREVENT fire you need to know what CAUSES it.

Fire is a living entity that needs three things to survive: heat, oxygen, and fuel. This is called the fire triangle, and the combination of these three elements creates a chemical reaction: fire. An open flame, like a match, is the most common source of heat. Add fuel in the form of hay, straw, or wood, and the fire will grow. Add a breeze to fan the flames and you have a raging inferno. Take away any one side of the fire triangle and the fire will diminish, eventually dying. Dump dirt on a fire, you smother it. Add water and you remove the heat.

One of the three major causes of stable fires is hay. Sometimes hay is not cured properly and is baled when it is still damp. This is particularly true of clover and alfalfa hay. Other times, your hay delivery might arrive on a rainy day and is loaded into the stable covered in moisture. Perhaps you've stacked the bales directly on the ground where they can wick up water once the soil around the stack becomes wet. Or the roof of your hay barn springs a leak and you don't notice the dripping of water onto the stack.

Although hay normally goes through cycles of bacteria forming and dying as part of curing, if heat-loving bacteria are present, and the bales stay warm, spontaneous combustion can occur. ( http://www.eqgroup.com/Pdf/hayfire1.pdf) As you use layers of bales you may find your eyes water when you're around the stack, or you notice a "sooty" odor. Hay can smolder for quite a while, but when oxygen is introduced, it can flare up into fire.

If you suspect your hay may be damp, make sure you're prepared for fire BEFORE you move the bales since they can ignite when they're moved. If the stack is large you may want to have the fire department on hand with their professional fire fighting equipment.

Ideally, hay should be stored in a separate building – a hay barn– separate from your stable, and in multiple small stacks instead of one huge stack. Put your hay up on pallets so it's well ventilated, and make sure there are no leaks in the roof that will soak the bales. And plan delivery of hay on non-rainy days.

What are the other most common causes of stable fires?

According to Jeff Halloway of Emergency Training Systems in Tennessee, 85% of all stable fires are the result of human negligence. The two leading causes are smoking and electrical equipment. In other words, carelessness.

Vulnerability Checklist

IN the Stable:

  • Do you allow smoking around your stable? There shouldn’t be any question about this one. It's a no-brainer. Cigarettes, lighters, matches, coupled with hay, straw, dust, cobwebs. There are NO safe smoking areas around a stable. At all. Ever.
  • Do you allow cobwebs to build up, especially around light fixtures and appliances? Believe it or not, cobwebs are one of the major causes of stable fires. The fire runs along the webs, dropping burning bits into hay and straw, starting fires all along their path.
  • Do you unplug all appliances when you’re finished using them? Is all your wiring safely run in conduit, or are extension cords and wiring left exposed where horses or mice can chew on them? Do you have wire hung over nails? Are you using residential level outlets and extension cords?
  • Do you dry wet blankets on a heater?
  • When you clip your horses, do you set the hot clippers down in a dusty area or on a hay bale?
  • Do you have fire extinguishers? There should be one at each exit door. If the stable is particularly long, put one at the half way mark. Figure on one every thirty feet, or so.
    • Did you know that the most common fire extinguisher weighs 5 lbs. and lasts for 9.2 SECONDS?
    • Did you know that most people who HAVE fire extinguishers have never used one, don't have a clue if they are operable, and have no idea the best kind to use?
  • Do you have a phone? Every stable should have at least one and it shouldn't be buried at the back of the tack room, under a pile of blankets. Next to the phone there should be written directions to the stable, the physical address, as well as all emergency contact information like veterinarians, home, work and cell numbers for anyone with a horse in your stable.
  • Do all doors either slide open completely or open outward? They should never open inward. Latches should be easy to operate with one hand.

OUTSIDE the Stable:

  • Do you have a clear, non-flammable space around your stable?
  • Is there a pathway of burnable material leading from the road directly to your stable?
  • Do you park your vehicles close to the stable? Maybe on grass? A safe distance would be about 50 feet. That includes tractors, lawn mowers, and chainsaws – anything that runs on fuel.
  • Do you refuel your tractor in or near the stable, or keep cans of fuel in the stable? Gasoline vapors are heavier than air. They will settle in depressions in the floor of the stable such as drains or beneath the foundation. Just pouring fuel from a can into a vehicle fuel tank allows vapors to escape.
  • Do you have broken glass on the ground near the stable? Summer sunlight passing through the glass will cause the grass under it to ignite.

There are so many ways you can encourage fire. But, take heart! There are also ways to discourage fire. By being proactive you can "fire proof" your stable.

Put things away when you're finished with them, like tools, tack and buckets. Sweep up loose hay and straw. Keep the outside clean, as well. Build a fire barrier alongside the road and the driveway. Keep tractors, vehicles or other fuel-powered tools away from the stable and always fuel them in an area that's well-ventilated and safe. Throw away the ashtrays and ban smoking around your stable. Spend a day upgrading the wiring. The little steps you take now – the occasional "clean up day" and regular vigilance– will help you sleep peacefully at night.