10 Tips to Prevent Barn Fires
I remember that Sunday afternoon as though it were yesterday. Looking out the kitchen window, seeing the smoke, realizing that the goat barn was on fire. My husband and I ran out the door, horrified at the sight of flames shooting out from the doors and under the walls. The barn was fully engulfed.
The fire chief was unable to tell us the cause of the fire, just the general area where it started. I suspect one of the does chewed on a wire and caused an electrical short. I lost fifteen Nubian does and two bucks that day.
Faith saw me through that terrible time, but it took two years for me to walk through the depression and come out on the other side. I have goats again; friends gave me bottle doelings from their own herds to replace what I’d lost. My three young does kidded this year for the first time, and we have kids and milk again. My life will always be defined as ‘before the fire’ and ‘after the fire’.
According to the National Fire Incident Reporting System (NFIRS), an average of 830 barn fires were reported annually from 2006 to 2010. Their statistics show that barn fires are more common during the winter and summer months. Winter fires are often the result of heating equipment; summer fires can be caused by lightning strikes or the spontaneous combustion of newly-baled hay.
I was very fire-conscious before; I am even more so now. Some things are beyond our control, but our fire could have been prevented by running the electrical wiring through metal conduit. I have a fire prevention strategy now, and I suggest you have one too. Write down your plan in detail. Putting a plan on paper makes it easier to enforce, and harder to be complacent. You are more likely to follow your own rules when they’re written down.
Here are my top ten fire prevention tips, all of which are part of my own fire safety strategy:
1. No smoking. We are a non-smoking family, but visitors are not allowed to light up.
2. If you have electricity in your barn, run all the wiring through metal conduit. Personally, I’ve decided not to have electricity in any building with livestock. Before we built our barn, I milked my goats inside a shed lit by a battery-powered camping lantern. A window or two gives enough light during the day.
3. Don’t store hay, feed, or bedding in the same building with livestock. Hay, straw and shavings are very flammable. Our fire didn’t start on the side of the barn where the hay was stored, yet the burned bales smoldered for nearly a week after the fire.
4. Have a fire extinguisher in the barn, installed out of reach of the goats, and know how to use it. It would not have made a difference in our case – we couldn’t get inside the barn – but in some other situation on some other day it might be needed.
5. The barn should have multiple exits in strategic places. For instance, my feed room was in the back corner of the barn, 30 feet from one door and 40 feet from the other. What if I had been inside the barn and unable to get out? There should have been an outside door in that corner, or at least a window.
6. Do not store combustibles in the barn. Gasoline and other fuels are obvious no-no’s, but fly spray, cleaners and other flammable liquids are probably common in your barn. Find another place to store them.
7. Heating equipment causes 25% of barn fires, with heat lamps being the highest cause. With winter before us, please think about your barn heating habits. If you use heat lamps, use only caged bulbs and tie them up securely.
8. Fans are another common cause of barn fires. Household fans used in a barn are soon covered with dust and dirt that can cause the motor to overheat. If you need fans in the summer, invest in those made specifically for livestock/barn use.
9. Practice good housekeeping. Cobwebs are highly flammable and they contribute to the fast spread of a fire. It’s a never-ending battle to keep a barn cobweb-free, but it’s worth the time to clean often.
10. Conduct annual (or more often) inspections of your barn, its contents, and the electrical wiring, and immediately fix any problems or hazards you might find.
Your barn’s location is also important. A house or barn in the middle of the woods is pretty, but fire officials will tell you to have a defensible space around your building that is clear of trees, dry grass, and brush. Locate a new barn in a safe area, or remove trees and brush around an existing structure. Keep grass and weeds mowed short, or let the goats do the trimming for you.
Fire-safety features – including wiring installed in metal conduit, exits where needed, maybe even a sprinkler system – can be easily included in new construction, but these and other measures can also be added to existing barns.
Don’t leave your barn and your goats vulnerable to fire. Be pro-active, have a plan and put rules in place to keep your barn fire-safe.
Kathleen Rodgers raises Nubian goats in central Oklahoma, where she blogs at Oak Hill Homestead.
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