Dr. Rebecca Gimenez: Barn Fire Issues & Mitigation
Editor’s Note: Best Horse Practices Summit presenter Dr. Rebecca Gimenez trains veterinarians, firefighters, animal welfare officers, and horse owners in tackling incidents found in large animal rescue scenarios and situations, and how to create prevention solutions for their communities and facilities. She runs internationally-renowned Technical Large Animal Emergency Rescue.
Dr. Gimenez writes:
“FIRE” is a word that veterinarians, animal owners, and emergency responders do not want to hear. Many aspects of an equine facility can be considered fire hazards. Even though building a fireproof barn or property is not realistic, there are numerous measures that can be taken to dramatically reduce the chances, or mitigate losses in wildfire threats. Loss is not just limited to animal lives. People have died in these disasters as well, and there are dramatic economic impacts as well as loss of beloved pets and companion animals.
Myth No. 1
If you leave a halter and lead rope outside your horse’s stall, then a firefighter can halter him and lead him to safety.
We have all heard it. Who told us that myth? Where did they learn it?
The truth is that in most barn fires, by the time someone notices and attempts to respond, the fire has burned out of control and quickly consumed the building. There was no chance to get the horses out. And, incidentally, the flames didn’t kill the horses. The smoke did.
Myth No. 2
Blindfold your horse to lead it from the barn or it won’t leave.
The movies have taught an entire generation to do the WRONG thing.
And, anyway, how many people have a blindfold handy?
Who of us can reach that high?
How many have actually tried it? If you DO try it, you will realize it takes precious seconds and many horses further panic. Others refuse to walk forward.
- Instead, how about teaching your horse to look to you as a leader?
- How about teaching your horse to lead in all types of stressful situations as a best practice?
As a rule of thumb, fires double in size each minute. The burning process follows strict rules of physics related to fuel load, ventilation, and oxygen availability. This means that usually by the time a flame is noticed, the fire department will not be able to get to the facility in time to save any people or horses trapped in the barn. You can expect the average barn to be fully “involved” (engulfed in flames) in the seven to 12 minutes that it takes for the fire department to be notified, respond to the location, and begin to fight the fire.
Why don’t we have a better idea of the number of barn fires affecting horses?
Many fires are not reported in the news – especially if no animals or people are killed, or low numbers of horses are killed. The news tends to report incidents where large numbers of animals, or one or more people, are injured or killed. Anecdotal data demonstrates much larger numbers of fires affect animal facilities which implies that the actual number of tragic deaths of horses in fires is much higher.
As an industry, have “ostrich syndrome” when it comes to barn fire preparation: We think it won’t happen to us. But it happens to beautiful, fancy, high-dollar barns as often as it does to race tracks and small, modest barns. Your education, race, wealth, or background doesn’t matter. What matters is this: What you have done to prevent and mitigate fire at your facility?
Prevention is enhanced with management, design, and emergency planning in concert with choice of materials, facility layout, siting of buildings, and ongoing maintenance.
I asked the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), “Why are fires such a problem in horse barns?” Turns out fire service’s recommendations are partially or even wholly ignored by those building most horse facilities. As agricultural facilities, they don’t have to attend to the codes, even when many people come into the barn facility on a daily basis – including children.
Two crucial areas concern me: appropriate ventilation and planning for an optimal fire detection/alert/response method. It is all the prevention, folks. The DETECTION–ALERT–RESPONSE–SUPPRESSION cycle is proven to save those public buildings, residential homes, and private barns outfitted with the appropriate outdoor use smoke detectors, thermal rate of rise detectors, or even flame detectors plugged into an alert system (usually to a security company). These buildings are prepared for raising an immediate response from fire departments while a suppression strategy is initiated (automatic sprinklers are best). Where sprinklers aren’t possible due to expense, lack of water availability, or climate, then effort has to be pushed even more onto detection and alerting.
We often forget how much it takes to fight a fire where there are so many combustibles (hay, shavings, rubber mats, wood structures, etc.) in one place. The following example is of a recent horse barn fire. It reminds us just how flammable barns are. No horses died (they were outside at the time of the fire), but this situation gives us an idea of the sheer logistics involved in fighting a barn fire:
Question: What does it take to fight a barn blaze in the countryside, miles away from any municipal water supply?
Answer (from fire department):
- 12 hours (in August heat and humidity)
- More than 100 firefighters from 23 fire departments, the Red Cross, EMS
- Transportation of more than 200,000 gallons of water (about as much as you’d find in an average farm pond) to the fire site.
The fire caused an estimated $150,000 in damage and the owners lost 8,000 bales of hay.
Methods and best practices for how to configure animal facilities to mitigate fire spread and provide increased life safety for employees, owners and, of course, the horses are available. I’ll talk more about them at the Best Horse Practices Summit.
Specifically, animal housing and facility fires initiated onsite or by wildfire are tragic events that cannot be completely eradicated but can be greatly reduced by taking preventative measures. Many aspects of design, materials, building layout or siting, and management methodology, or even simple retrofits to existing animal facilities can affect outcomes. We need to look harder at the fire science and the complex reasons why we are rarely able to save horses trapped in stalls during barn fire conditions, so that we can improve the odds of saving them.
Read more on evacuation preparation here.
What do you do in your facilities to prevent and mitigate these scenarios? Do you practice a barn fire evacuation? If so, please directly e-mail me a copy of your plan at delphiacres at hotmail dot com and I will help you evaluate it (I call this a “sanity check”).