Fire Prevention Outside Your Barn

Motorized Farm Equipment.  Farm tractors and other gasoline- and diesel-powered vehicles and equipment (including chain saws, garden mowers, gas-powered string trimmers) should be parked or stored away from the barn—at least 15 feet away from any structures housing animals.  Equipment must be properly maintained to avoid problems with the fuel or exhaust systems, and refueling should be done as far distant from the barn as possible.  Gasoline vapors are heavier than air, so as gasoline is poured from one container to another, for example, from gas can to tractor fuel tank, the escaping vapors fall to the lowest spots.  Vapors settle into depressions in the ground, beneath buildings if there are openings in the foundation, into floor drains, and any other low areas.  Gasoline vapors will readily ignite, so a lit match in the vicinity, or even at some distance if topography and ventilation are right, could start a fire.

If a tractor is used in the barn for pulling a manure spreader or wagon during barn cleaning chores, it must never be parked blocking an occupied stall or pen, nor should it be left running unless it’s being driven.  Regardless of whether your vehicles or other internal combustion powered tools are gasoline- or diesel-fueled, be aware of  a potential build-up of carbon monoxide because when vehicles are operating, carbon monoxide is given off in the exhaust.  Even if your barn is “wide open,” there may be alcoves or recesses where carbon monoxide can accumulate, causing an unexpected medical or veterinary emergency.  That’s why the use of vehicles in your barn should be kept to a minimum.  Of course, it would be inefficient to return to the use of wheelbarrows and muscle power to clean large barns, but being aware of the dangers of carbon monoxide will lessen your chances of becoming a victim.

Parking seldom-used farm equipment some distance from the barn is also a good way to keep debris from collecting,  It’s amazing how many items can be “stored” under or behind seldom-used farm equipment—those items provide excellent fuel.  Find a safe storage area for items such as spare fence posts or boards away from that equipment.

The parking area should be kept clear of all loose hay or straw or other debris because hot exhaust pipes can ignite grass, leaves, or weeds caught on tractor and truck exhaust pipes, which could then, in addition to possibly causing a vehicle fire, could ignite hay laying beneath the equipment., which in turn, might provide a fuel-strewn path to the nearest buildings.  Another strong reason for keeping a broom and/or rake handy.

The manure pile should be at least 50 feet from the barn, and out of the prevailing winds path.  Microbes at work in the pile create heat, which is why you may often see wisps of smoke rising from the pile.  It is possible for the combination of heat and oxygen to ignite the pile, causing a fire that burns rapidly, and seems almost to explode because of the rapid action. For this reason, it’s a good idea to keep the manure pile from getting too big; ideally, if room is available, it’s better to spread the manure out so it dries before piling it.

If you need a load-bearing roadway, but can’t give up pasture space, check in to installing a porous paving system where grass can grow above a plastic grid system. These products allow you to grow grass within a framework that is set up on a base that will bear the weight of heavy vehicles. You don’t see the framework because it’s below the grass and you have useable pasture space that will allow heavy vehicles to traverse the area or park on it without the danger of getting mired in soft ground. One U.S. company is Invisible Structures, Inc.

firetruckDefensible Space.  Fire prevention outside also involves having a minimum of medium- to tall- growing vegetation near the barn since it only becomes more fuel should a fire start. If your pastures front on a road, leave a barren strip 15 to 20 feet wide to act as a firebreak to lessen the danger of brush fires. A barren strip, however, is the ideal. With high land prices and smaller pastures and paddocks, many property owners need every square inch of grass. Also, there may be soil erosion problems on slopes that preclude leaving the area bare. Keeping the grass closely mowed along the road right-of-way, though, is a good idea. You may be concerned that carelessly tossed still-burning cigarettes may be fire-starters, and in some instances they are, but research has determined that east of the Mississippi River, it’s not the cigarettes that start the fires, it’s the matches used to light them.

At least 30 feet of clear area should be provided around the barn so firefighters can work. Wildland firefighters refer to the cleared area around a structure as “defensible space,” which means the amount of space around a building needed not only for firefighters to work, but enough space to prevent fire from jumping from the building to the surrounding vegetation and vice-versa. See the articles on Wildland Fires for more information.

Additional Article: I’ve recently had an article published in Equestrian Magazine, the official magazine of the United States Equestrian Federation, about making it easier for the fire department not only to find your property, but how you can assist in making plans for fighting a fire on your property. The title is “Fire Safety: Making Every Moment Count.”

Photo courtesy of Invisible Structures, Inc.

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