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Fire! The Dread Of All Horsemen

No other word in the English language can strike more fear than the cry, “Fire”! And the thought of a fire raging through a stable full of horses is doubly terrifying. Horses plunging and fighting for freedom from the searing flames as handlers and owners make valiant attempts to save the animals they have come to respect and love, are sight and sounds one never forgets.

Some horses in a barn fire may be saved – but others will die an agonizing death, as their stalls fill with smoke, and then the intense heat of the oncoming flames causes the bedding to flash into one huge fireball, engulfing all and everything it touches.

Stables’ construction, their location, hay storage, tack area, and horses’ comfort are always considered in the building plans for any barn. But what about fire prevention? Shouldn’t the thought that goes into the building be expanded to include fire prevention? And for barns already built, what precautions should be taken to prevent fires? And what measures taken if fire does strike?

In the 1970s, Union Carbide Chemicals Company’s Fire Protection Engineering Division conducted fire tests and studies on race track stables for the New York Racing Commission. Later the California Thoroughbred Breeders Association and the Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association issued a joint report on a study of California race track stables. Then, the National Fire Protection Association published an “Occupancy Fire Record” (FR 63-2) describing the results of fires in race track barns and stables. These combined findings were interesting and, in some cases, startling, in facts and figures!

Of the fires investigated by the aforementioned agencies, 90 percent were located at race tracks. But fires are not limited to race track stables or barns. Race track fires were investigated because of insurance requirements before payments were made for property damage reimbursement – and because they received national newspaper coverage.

But what about the average stable or riding academy? They, too, suffer fires, which in some cases are more disastrous then race track fires. One fire in Oregon completely razed a riding academy housing 75 horses. All horses were burned to death – and the holocaust wasn’t discovered until the next morning when the owner came to feed the horses and found the barn in ashes with dead and dying horses still in burned-out stalls!

Unlike race tracks, which have grooms living in quarters, not all stables and riding academies have on-site residents. People come and go as they like – feeding their horses, riding, and enjoying their mounts. So like the Oregon stable, a fire can rage out of control with no finding out until it’s too late.

Most stables are long and narrow containing from 10 to 60 stalls, and have Dutch door arrangements with the lower half of the stall door closed, leaving the top half open for ventilation. Some have open rear doors leading from stalls to paddocks of various sized.

Tests in a 12×12 foot stall, using two bales of fresh straw, showed that in fast fires in one minute’s time, temperatures reached 375 degrees F, 15 feet above the floor. The clean-burning fire raised air temperatures rapidly.

A similar test, using slow burning straw, did not develop noticeable quantities of smoke, and the temperature 15 feet above the floor reached only 150 degrees F, during the first one and one-half minutes. As the fire continued to burn, dense smoke developed, and in three minutes 30 seconds, the temperature reached 250 degrees F.

An animal will be able to survive a fire less than one foot in diameter and/or temperatures at the 15-foot level of less than 150 degrees F. However, if a fire starts in a horse’s stall, the animal in that stall seldom has more than 30 seconds to be rescued, before suffering fatal burns of smoke inhalation. It has been proven that in one or two minutes, a burning bed of straw will generate more heat than a pool of burning gasoline! Horses in adjoining stalls have up to five minutes to be rescued, depending upon stall construction and separation.

For some reason, stable owners don’t consider putting in an automated sprinkler system. A sprinkler system suspended in each stall and down an alleyway will save the barn and horses. Most stable owners look at the initial cost and shake their heads. What they fail to realize is that with a wet sprinkler system, their yearly insurance premiums can be cut as much as 50 percent. When you figure that out over five, ten or 15 years, you’re talking about quite a chunk of money – thousands to be exact. The original cost of sprinklers can be spread over a three- or five-year period. Some stable owners try to build a stable as cheaply as they can. And about the only argument you can say to those people is, what do you figure the life of a horse is worth?

Building to protect against fire is an ideal solution, but for stables and barns already built, common sense rules will help to minimize the danger of barn fires. Let’s face it – horses don’t start fires, people do! And in the hot, dry summer climate of California, wildfires are a guaranteed annual event.

Every barn should be off-limits when it comes to smoking. “No Smoking” signs should be placed on entrance doors, plus a couple in the barn to help people who forget to remember. For those that must smoke, a smoking area should be established complete with sand buckets for cigarette butts. A cigarette ground out in the arena dirt may not be out. It can smolder for hours and days among shavings and straw before flaring up into a possible holocaust!

“Cleanliness next to Godliness” should apply to the barn. Always should be kept clean of paper scraps, litter and spilled hay. Tack boxes should be placed against the wall, so aisles are clear for quick exit in case of an emergency.

Never use rubber- or plastic-covered wiring. Horses and mice can create havoc with it. Use metal or PVC conduits. If wiring is already installed, check it periodically for worn and hot spots.

Overloaded fuses are a menace. Coffee pots, clippers, and electric heaters all running at the same time can blow fuses. Don’t overload electrical outlets, and if extension cords are used, use the heavy-duty ones and check for rubbed and cracked areas.

Never store flammable liquids in closed tack boxes or tight spaced where they might get hot. Aerosol spray cans left in the sun can build up pressure and heat, and literally explode!

Fire extinguishers should be charge and checked to make sure they work, then hung in places that everyone knows about for emergency use. It does no good to have a fire extinguisher if no one knows where it is or how to use it.

Ideally, there should be a telephone on the property, with emergency numbers clearly posted on it.

Leading a horse out of a burning barn is not easy. A saddle blanket, shirt, sweater, etc. should be placed over the horse’s eyes. The animal can then be led to safety, with a belt or piece of rope. Smoke doesn’t frighten horses; it’s the sight and sound of flames that panics them. Once the horse is outside, if a corral, pasture or arena is far enough from the flames to be safe, turn the horse loose there. But beware; a loose horse will return to its stall regardless of the flames around it. In the mind of the horse, that stall is a haven of safety.

It’s a good idea to state periodic fire drills, so people know what to do in case of fire. Or at least tell everyone what to do in case of fire. First, notify the fire department (directions to the barn can be typed on cards, inserted in a plastic holder, and tacked to the wall by the phone, so it’s easier and faster to give directions to the fire department dispatcher). Secondly, start to remove as many horses as possible from the immediate danger area. Don’t play hero by trying to rescue horses trapped in burning stalls. Sadly enough most of those will die from smoke inhalation, even if freed. Rescue only those horses you can get to safely.

Saving horses is case of a fire depends upon quick action. But preventing fires is still the best method – and prevention is everybody’s responsibility!

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Fire! The Dread Of All Horsemen