SALEM, Ohio — Every year, hundreds of barns around the country go up in smoke. In many cases, hay, straw, machinery and livestock are also lost in these fiery tragedies. But the good news is that nearly all barn fires are preventable.
“The only fire you cannot prevent is arson,” said Laurie Loveman, an officer in the Highland Hills (Ohio) Fire Department and consultant on equine facility fire safety.
The majority of barn fires are electrical in nature, according to Loveman. This includes everything from appliances that malfunction to poor wiring.
In August, a century-old bank barn in Homeworth, Ohio, burned to ground. Fire officials suspect the cause of the blaze was outdated wiring.
Owned by Jay Kitzmiller, the barn was a total loss, along with the hay, straw, hay wagon and elevator that were stored inside.
“You’ve got to be up on this stuff or you’re going to pay the price,” said Marion Kitzmiller, Jay’s dad.
It was a lesson learned the hard way for the Kitzmillers, but Marion said the family is now much more aware of fire hazards. They’ve had their other barns, and even the house, examined by experienced electricians.
“You think it’ll never happen to you, but it does,” Marion said.
During the winter, portable heaters and heat lamps become serious problems, according to Loveman. It’s especially troublesome on sheep and goat farms where farmers want to provide heat for newborn animals.
Heaters and lamps can catch bedding on fire and often no one realizes there’s a problem until it’s too late.
“You could have a fire going on in your barn and not know it,” Loveman said.
She suggested that producers consider blankets or covers, rather than the heating devices. But if you have to have heat, invest in enclosed heat lamps or use heaters only under supervision.
Summer also brings potential fire hazards. Residential box fans are often used in barns to cool animals, but Loveman warns that, even when hung properly, box fans are a bad idea.
The motors of these fans are not sealed and dirt can cause the motors to seize up. The motor then overheats, catches the plastic housing on fire, burns up the entire fan and burning plastic drips onto the stall bedding where it catches on fire.
The best way to combat this issue is by purchasing a fan designed for agricultural use, which will have a sealed motor.
Loveman also cautioned against relying too heavily on local fire departments. Firefighters do their best, but barns are often in remote, rural areas that are difficult to access. And fires can start at any time, so if you’re sleeping or away from home, it’s likely the fire wouldn’t be reported until the damage has already been done.
Loveman said there are a few easy things any barn owner can do to reduce risks.
“Good housekeeping is one of the biggest ways to prevent a fire,” she said.
Keeping the barn clean can be a constant battle, but one that’s well worth the effort. Try to get rid of as many cobwebs as possible on a regular basis — it eliminates an easy way for fires to spread. In a fire, flames can travel along the delicate strands and flaming pieces of cobweb can fall from rafters, igniting the bedding below.
Also, keep your aisles clear so you don’t have to contend with an obstacle course if your barn is on fire.
If you keep horses or other livestock in your barn, it’s important they can be led or herded out of the building. Don’t assume they will naturally figure it out.
If it’s possible, halter your animals and lead them a safe distance away during a fire. The benefit of haltering is that animals will not be able to return to the barn, which is where they perceive safety.
If you have a larger number of animals, create a runway that leads to open pasture and use it on a regular basis. If your animals are used to using the same entrance and exit, it will be easier to get them out during a fire.
“The main thing is you want quick evacuation of your barn,” Loveman said.
In most cases, fire prevention is not costly. In fact, the prevention methods are usually much cheaper than what would be lost if your barn did happen to catch on fire, Loveman said.
Ideally, a sprinkler system is one of the best ways to prevent a fire, but even if that’s not a possibility, barn owners can reduce their risks by simply staying aware of potential hazards.