Evacuating Your Barn In A Fire

This is why many animals die in fires:

  • Lack of sprinkler systems to extinguish a fire while it is still small and hasn’t yet produced fatal amounts of  toxic gases
  • Debris or equipment in aisleways and stall bedding that adds to the fire fuel load
  • Halters and lead ropes not easily accessible
  • Horses or other animals that are hard to catch,  hard to halter, and hard to lead
  • Animals confined in small enclosures in large factory farms where there are no sprinkler systems and not enough employees to evacuate them
  • Animals trapped beneath a fallen roof who are injured or killed by the heavy, burning, falling debris.

The majority of animals who die in barn fires die of smoke inhalation.  Their first reaction is often to try to climb a wall, as in the case of horses, or to scale metal pipe enclosures as often happens to pigs in factor farms, in an attempt to escape.  This often puts horses and cattle, particularly, right into the heaviest smoke, since smoke will spread out along the ceiling if there is one directly above the stalls or stanchions (as in older bank barns). If any part of the barn is open to the roof, and the flames have not broken through the roof, allowing smoke to vent, the smoke and all its toxic components will continue to push downward towards the barn floor.  All too often a fire smolders for awhile, releasing toxic gases that kill the barn occupants before anyone even realizes there is a fire.

With horses, if they are accustomed to leaving the barn via a runway, it’s possible that as soon as stall doors are opened, the horses will leave the barn just as if they were going out to pasture. My horses were trained to exit and enter the barn through a short runway. Having accustomed them to this practice, I’m pretty sure they would leave the barn in this manner in an emergency if I remained calm and opened stall doors as I usually did (see A Helping Hand–or Hoof). But don’t assume anything. Always be prepared to lead your horses or any other animals out of the barn.

Making an Evacuation Plan:

Evacuation is the most difficult task you will have in the event of a fire and there are no set rules for how evacuation will be accomplished.  Each facility is different, so an evacuation plan must be designed specifically for your barn.  There are many questions that have to be answered in order to create an efficient evacuation plan.  For example: Which exit door should I use?  If that door is blocked, what other door should I use?  How do I lead my animal(s) out if I’m partially blinded by smoke?  Which pasture should the animals be put in?  Where should I park my car to keep it out of the way of firefighting apparatus?  Which horse should be the first one evacuated and why?   Read the article by Frank Hicks, Jr., Developing an Equine Barn Escape Plan, which offers straight-forward steps to take to create your own escape plan that should be adapted for the kinds of animals you keep.

For horses, your plan must include each horse’s location in the barn and where each horse is to be evacuated to (pasture, neighbor’s barn, tied in a secure location).   A number of factors should be considered when you assign each horse to a stall.  For example, put a nervous or high-strung horse, a weak horse, or the oldest horse near the exit door because they may be the most resistant to evacuation.  The stalls for other horses (stallions, pleasure horses, yearlings, broodmares with foals at their side) will have to be determined by the layout of your barn.  Some of these horses require special handling on a day-to-day basis.

Once again, I want to stress that  horses must be led out in case of fire or they may attempt to return to the perceived safety of their stalls.  If  horses revert to survival instinct and they panic inside a building, they may crash into other horses, people, and doorways, and if they go down, other horses may trip over the first fallen horse, causing a pile-up with disastrous results.  If it’s at all possible, once you take a horse from its stall, the stall door must be closed.  This is a situation in which it helps if there are people leading horses out and another person closing stall doors as soon as the horse has been taken out of the stall.  This precaution should also be followed with any animal you must lead, rather than herd, out of the barn.

If your horses does not wear a halter while in the stall, the halter, with a cotton lead rope attached, should be hanging on the stall door or right next to it.  In addition to halters already in the barn, Andrew G. Lang, D.V.M., Manager of Animal Health at the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), suggests keeping a stash of halters and lead ropes in a place near the barn where they can be grabbed in a hurry.

What about the animals who refuse to be evacuated? If attempts to get an animal to move fail, you must leave him behind.  That’s a brutal statement, but if fire conditions worsen and you are unable to safely evacuate the animals still in the barn, either because they have been cut off from safety by the fire, are already down from smoke inhalation, or due to their refusal to leave the stall, you must—and this cannot be stressed enough—YOU MUST LEAVE THE BARN AND DO NOT GO BACK!

It is critical, in fact, to remove youngsters from the area if it looks as if animals may be trapped.  In the midst of a fire it may seem “noble” for a youngster to try to rescue his or her horse or 4-H project or companion animal, but nobility in this instance is a tragic bit of fiction.   One way to help children through the emergency if they are on the scene is to assign them a job, such as guarding a pasture gate if horses are being evacuated to that location.  The job can involve opening and closing the gate as horses are brought to it, which can save precious minutes for the adult rescuers.   Another possible assignment for youngsters would be keeping the barn dog (on a leash) or barn cat (in carrier or other container) a safe distance away from the barn and firefighting activity.  A note of caution regarding barn dogs and cats: if you are a stranger to them you must be very careful in a rescue attempt.  Please read Slim Ray’s article, Reigning Cats & Dogs, that follows this article.  It was written for firefighters who are called upon to rescue animals, but the information is important for all of us.

Children, though, may not be your only re-entry worry.   Adult horse owners may attempt re-entering the barn if they haven’t yet seen or been able to evacuate their own horse.   Firefighters have all too often removed the bodies of people who safely escaped a burning building only to re-enter it to look for a pet or personal valuables.  You don’t want this to be the case with someone you care about—or yourself.

Changes to Make Now:

  • Get in the habit of wearing natural-fiber clothing and non-rubber soled shoes or boots in the barn.  Exposed skin begins to burn at 140°F.  Synthetic or nylon clothing will melt, as will the rubber soles on shoes, and cause serious burns.
  • Make a shift away from using nylon halters and lead ropes inside the barn to using leather halters and leather or cotton lead ropes.  Nylon can melt to an animal’s skin (and your’s, too).  Remember also that metal fittings on equipment can become hot enough to burn you and the animal you’re leading.
  • Teach every animal, regardless of age, to load into a trailer.  If you have to evacuate using trailers, an animal that balks at loading, or refuses to load, imperils the life of every other animal, and maybe you.
  • Teach every horse to accept a halter, even foals a few days old, and make sure you teach the foals to lead with or without Mommy in sight.  You may have to lead that baby out through a pitch-black aisleway where Mommy can’t be seen, or possibly, not even heard, over the noise of the fire.  Ron and Cheryl Chernicky, of Rainbow Ridge Farm in Novelty, Ohio, teach this to their foals.  Cheryl’s article about halter training is in the contributor section in Evacuating Your Barn.
  • Familiarize your horses, in particular, with the sights and sounds of emergency situations such as flashing lights, sirens, and firefighters in turnout gear.
  • Teach your local fire department members how to halter and lead a horse, and give the fire department a copy of your evacuation plan along with a sketch of your barn and property layout, including stall diagrams and pastures or paddocks to be used (see my sample “stall sketch” at the end of this article)
  • Make your evacuation plan—which should have an escape route from each stall, an alternate route, and the destination—and then hold trial evacuations to see if your plan works or needs adjustment.  Once you’re satisfied with your plan, hold periodic fire drills in daylight and at night (without turning on lights).
  • Install glow-in-the-dark exit signs, arrows, and door markers wherever needed in your barn to help people locate stalls, directions to move out of the barn, and the exterior doorways. Photoluminescent signs are not just for fire evacuation, though. They’ll safely guide you around your barn in case of a general power outage, and some of them will stay “lit” for up to 8 hours. They don’t require electricity or batteries since they recharge in ambient light. Photoluminescent signs are widely available; you can find companies selling the signs by doing an online search for “photoluminescent signs.”
  • You may need a double hasp on some stall doors for a horse that can open its door, butnever place a lock on a stall door, and do not lock or otherwise disable an exit door by using an interior latch.  For people and animals, exit doors must be able to be quickly opened from OUTSIDE the barn. NEVER “BURGLAR-PROOF” YOUR BARN IN ANY WAY THAT PREVENTS IMMEDIATE EMERGENCY ACCESS.

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