Barn fires are one of any horse owner’s biggest nightmares. In just a few minutes of heat, smoke and fury, thousands of dollars of saddles, bridles, hay, grain and equipment can be lost along with the barn. That your horse could be trapped inside is almost too painful to imagine.

Preventing barn fires and being well prepared to deal with a fire can mean the difference between life and death for your horses.

If you have a barn, it's essential that you understand how fires start and how to deal with them. But the single most important thing is to be vigilant at all times.

How to prevent barn fires

Most barn fires are preventable, and too often they result from negligence or apathy toward fire prevention.

  • Prohibit smoking in or around the barn. A discarded cigarette can ignite dry bedding or hay in seconds.
  • Avoid parking tractors and vehicles in or near the barn. Engine heat and backfires can spark a flame.
  • Store other machinery and flammable materials outside the barn.
  • Inspect electrical systems regularly and immediately correct any problems. Rodents can chew on electrical wiring and cause damage that quickly becomes a fire hazard.
  • Keep appliances to a minimum in the barn. Use stall fans, space heaters and radios only when someone is in the barn.
  • Be sure hay is dry before storing it. Hay that is too moist may spontaneously combust. Store hay outside the barn in a dry, covered area when possible.
  • Reinforce your house, barn and outbuildings with hurricane straps and other measures. Perform regular safety checks on all utilities, buildings and facilities on your farm.
  • Use only native and deep-rooted plants and trees in landscaping (non-native plants are less durable and hardy in your climate and may become dislodged by high winds or broken by ice and snow).
  • Remove all barbed wire, and consider rerouting permanent fencing so that animals may move to high ground in a flood and to low-lying areas during high winds.
  • Install a hand pump and obtain enough large containers to water your animals for at least a week (municipal water supplies and wells are often contaminated during a disaster).
  • Identify alternate water and power sources. A generator with a safely stored supply of fuel may be essential, especially if you have electrical equipment necessary to the well being of your animals.
  • Secure or remove anything that could become blowing debris; make a habit of securing trailers, propane tanks and other large objects. If you have boats, feed troughs or other large containers, fill them with water before any high wind event. This prevents them from blowing around and also gives you an additional supply of water.
  • If you use heat lamps or other electrical machinery, make sure the wiring is safe and that any heat source is clear of flammable debris.
  • Label hazardous materials and place them all in the same safe area. Provide local fire and rescue and emergency management authorities with information about the location of any hazardous materials on your property.
  • Remove old buried trash—a potential source of hazardous materials during flooding that may leach into crops, feed supplies, water sources and pasture.

Review and update your disaster plan, supplies and information regularly.

How to respond safely to a barn fire

  • Immediately call 911 or your local emergency services.
  • Do not enter the barn if it is already engulfed in flames.
  • If it is safe for you to enter the barn, evacuate animals one at a time, starting with the most accessible ones.
  • Never let animals loose in an area where they are able to return to the barn.
  • Put a halter and lead rope on each horse when you open the stall door. Be aware that horses tend to run back into burning barns out of fear and confusion.
  • Blindfold horses only if absolutely necessary. Many horses will balk at a blindfold, making evacuation more difficult and time consuming.
  • Move them to paddocks close enough to reach quickly but far enough from the barn that they won't be affected by the fire and smoke.
  • Be sure to have all your horses checked by a veterinarian after the fire. Smoke inhalation can cause serious lung damage and respiratory complications. Horses are prone to stress and may experience colic after a fire.