Pet Columns, Office of Public Engagement, College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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Horse Barn Fires: An Avoidable Tragedy


Pet Column for the week of April 1, 2002


Office of Public Engagement
2001 S. Lincoln Ave.
Urbana, Illinois 61802
Phone: 217/333-2907
Jennifer Stone
Information Specialist

One of the worst possible nightmares for a horse owner is to see the glow of a barn fire in the night sky. The real tragedy of most barn fires is that they probably could have been prevented with a few precautionary steps.

Dr. R. Dean Scoggins, an equine Extension veterinarian at the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine in Urbana says, "Horse barn fires are something that happen with some regularity, most started due to avoidable electrical problems in the barn wiring." These electrical problems are often caused by damage to wires. When an old barn is converted to a horse barn, wiring may get pinched and damaged in the process. Horse owners may want to consider having a converted barn completely rewired to make sure that the wiring is safe. Sometimes too many appliances (such as vacuums, fans and clippers) may be plugged in to the outlets, causing an electrical overload in the barn wiring. Small animals such as squirrels, mice and rats also contribute to the damage in wiring by chewing the insulation off, and leaving live wires exposed to the environment.

So what can be done to make sure that a barn fire does not occur? Dr. Scoggins says, " Have an electrician come in and inspect the barn for wiring problems, and make sure that the wiring is adequate for your power needs." Horse owners cannot afford not to have this done because the potential loss is so great. Not only is there the emotional loss involved, but there are also financial losses and liability issues to consider especially at barns where horses belonging to other people are housed. In addition, many insurance companies will give breaks on insurance premiums if an inspection or other preventative measures are taken.

The most important thing that can be done to save horses in the event of a fire is to make an emergency plan in advance. Make sure that the people who work in the barn know the plan, and make sure that you have the appropriate fire extinguishing equipment easily accessible. This includes fire extinguishers, and a water supply that has adequate pressure. Get an extinguisher that will work on electrical fires. (You should never use water to put out an electrical fire.) Make sure that the electrical switch box is located in a place where it can be shut down in the event of an electrical fire. Leave a halter and a lead rope at each stall at all times to facilitate the evacuation of horses.

Other precautionary measures that can be taken include removing any combustible or flammable items from the horse barn (such as farm machinery which contains gasoline), and storing hay and grain in another location. If you are building a new barn, it may be wise to use flame retardant wood, and if you are housing a large number of horses, it may even be a good idea to install a hardwired fire alarm system into the building.

Unfortunately the prognosis for a horse that has been involved in a barn fire is not good. Horses tend to panic in emergency situations and do not always behave in the most rational manner. Dr. Scoggins says, " In a barn fire, the smoke tends to come down into the horse's stall from above. The horse panics and runs to the corner of the stall and tries to climb the wall to get out of the smoke. In doing so the horse sticks its head up into the thickest smoke and usually gets massive smoke inhalation damage." So why not just let them all out of their stalls so that they can escape? This is because horses will not run away from a fire because they associate the barn stall with safety. "I remember one barn fire that I witnessed in which the stalls of 22 horses were opened and only two of the horses inside the barn came out", says Dr. Scoggins. Horses that stay in their stalls a large amount of the time are especially reluctant to come out in the event of a fire. The best way to coax a horse out of a burning barn is to cover his eyes with something such as a jacket, large towel or saddle blanket and then lead him out. If you succeed in getting the horse out of the barn, it is important to tie him up to something solid or he may try to run back inside the burning barn.

The majority of horses involved in barn fires die of smoke inhalation. The ones that recover usually have significant smoke inhalation damage and rarely recover completely. Many horses will show significant improvement for the first few days or may not show any signs of respiratory distress at all but may get a sudden accumulation of fluid in their lungs a few days later. Dr. Scoggins says, "Make sure you get any horse that has been exposed to smoke to your veterinarian immediately. Do not wait a day or two because your horse may not have that long. Do not assume that just because the horse looks okay right after the fire, that no damage has been done."

If you have any questions about horse barn fires or treatment of horses that have been exposed to smoke, please contact your local equine veterinarian.