Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Preventing Tragedy

Yesterday, I read a story that is truly every horseman's worst nightmare; a barn fire destroyed a show barn in Magnolia, Texas, killing 13 horses, and leaving one unaccounted for.  14 other horses were evacuated safely, however, the barn was not insured and was considered a total loss.  My heart goes out to the Goslin/Nix family; I have met Fred Goslin, and Gwen Nix, and know that they are good, responsible horse people who surely felt that their facility was a safe one, and took great care of the training horses entrusted to them.  I hope that they are able to recover from this setback, and return to their normal work activities soon.  I am also saying a prayer for all the horsey souls lost in that fire, as well as their human owners, who I am sure are heartbroken.

I subscribe to several equine industry news outlets, so this same story seems to cross my radar several times a year, and it never fails to give me a sick feeling in my stomach.  Barn fires cause millions of dollars in damages and loss every year, and almost always, they are preventable.  In honor of the horses that were lost in the Goslin/Nix fire, I'd like to review some fire safety strategies that we can implement to help keep this from happening in our own barns.

1.)  Clean that barn - REALLY clean it!  The air in the barn is full of micro-bits of sawdust, hair and debris that are extremely flammable.  Get out a broom and sweep the walls, corners, wiring, everything.  Used canned air to clean out outlets.  Take down your fans (or climb up to them) and clean them thoroughly with small brushes, rags, etc. taking care to inspect their wiring.  Horses and rodents can chew on cords, making them a fire hazard.  Replace a fan that is damaged - don't just tape it up.  The cost of a new fan is nothing compared to the loss of your barn and animals.

2.)  Have your wiring inspected by an electrician.  A professional can see things that you may not be able to, and can make recommendations that could save lives and money.  As much as it is possible, encase all wiring in conduit, and install protective lighting cases over bulbs.

3.)  Hay during the summer months can get very hot, and may combust.  Stack hay to maximize air flow, leaving channels in between bales.  Make sure you smell your stacks frequently; often you can smell a charred scent if a batch of bales is at risk for combustion.  It is also a good idea to store your hay and sawdust separately from where your horse's stalls are; if that isn't possible, make sure that the hay and sawdust is kept in the coolest area in your barn and is well-ventilated.  Also, keep loose hay or sawdust swept/raked up, so that it doesn't accumulate in areas where it could catch fire.

4.)  Make sure you have several large, fully charged fire extinguishers in several locations in your barn.  Also make sure that all your barn help know how to use them.

5.)  This may be obvious, but enforce a 'No Smoking' rule on your property.  Post signs and make sure that there are no exceptions to this rule.  Often, people who want to smoke won't smoke in the barn per se, but will stand just outside of it, and will flick their butt on the ground.  Other flammable activities include your shoer who uses a hot forge, or someone who does welding work.  Keep a close eye on those sparks!

6.)  Installing a sprinkler system is a big expense for most horse owners, but the payoff for this investment is the peace of mind that your horses might be saved from fire if you are not there to evacuate them, or if it is the middle of the night and you are unaware of a fire in your barn.  New construction should always have them, but older barns can be retrofit with them.

7.)  There are two small appliances that are commonly used in barns that increase the risk of fire substantially.  One is fans, and the other is heaters.  This summer has been incredibly hot, and to help there stall bound horses cope, many people are running fans 24/7.  Most box fans are not terribly well-made; make sure to turn them off occasionally to give the motor a rest, inspect them carefully and consider using larger fans in the aisles, rather than small fans in each stall (more small fans means more cords, which means more risk.).  If possible, consider turning your horses out rather than keeping them stalled; usually there is more breeze outside than in, and if there is shade available, the horses will be more content and comfortable outside. 

As far as heaters go, I am very much against their use in horse barns.  They are not for the horses, who are blessed with a natural way to stay warm - their coats.  Heaters are for people, but really are an accident waiting to happen.  If you are busy moving around in a barn, you won't be very cold, but if you are, warm up inside the house, lounge, your car or with some hot chocolate or hot pack, not in front of a space heater.  It just isn't worth the risk.  If you absolutely cannot live without your space heater, post large signs around the barn area, reminding you to turn off or check the heater, and always place the heater on a flat, stable, non-combustable surface, away from anything that might get hot and catch fire.

I hope these suggestions inspire you to go out today and declare a fire safety day.  By being vigilant, we may be able to prevent a tragedy from occurring in your barn, and that would be the very best way to remember the fourteen horses lost yesterday.  Take care, and be safe.