In The Aftermath Of A Fire

Veterinary Attention

As soon as possible—even while firefighters are still on the scene—ask your veterinarian to check every animal that might have been exposed to smoke.  Even if the animals were not in the barn, but close by in a pasture, they should be checked for smoke inhalation.

Very often following exposure to smoke, horses, in particular, will seem fine for the first few days after the fire and won’t show signs of respiratory problems.  Then suddenly, they’ll get an accumulation of fluid in their lungs.  If that happens your horse is in real trouble, and considering that some horses do not fully recover to their pre-fire condition following smoke inhalation, you’ll want your veterinarian to check your horses daily until he or she feels they are fully recovered or at least have recovered to the best level of function they can attain.  Recovering from smoke inhalation can take four to six weeks, during which time your horse should not be asked to work. Other animals should also be checked periodically, as deemed necessary by your veterinarian, until they have recovered to the greatest extent possible.

If an animal has been burned, do not apply any topical burn medication before your veterinarian arrives because the wrong medication can be harmful.  Even if the burn appears small, it can leave an animal open to bacterial infections, which along with respiratory damage, can be fatal.  Taking care of burns immediately following the fire must be left to your veterinarian, which is why your veterinarian should be on the scene as soon as possible.  You probably have his or her phone number near the top of your emergency call list, but if you don’t, post it immediately.  Remember that in the chaos and emotional turmoil of a fire you may not remember your own phone number—don’t count on remembering your veterinarian’s phone number either.

What Has to be Done Right Away

A barn fire creates an immediate need for shelter for the remaining animals and obtaining feed, hay, and bedding.  In addition, your fire department will investigate to determine the cause of the fire, if possible, and may request assistance from the state Fire Marshal’s Office.  If you have insurance, your insurance company will also want to know the cause, and the company may send its own investigators to go over the scene.  Often there is such complete destruction that determining a cause is nearly impossible, and it may be only your recollection of what was going on in the barn before the fire that may have caused or contributed to the fire, such as using a portable heater or heat lamp, possible malfunction of other portable appliances, or previously known mechanical or structural deficiencies that could have been a cause.

Be prepared to give your insurance agent documentation of your loss(es). If you haven’t already done so on the advice of your insurance agent, make a photo inventory of your entire barn—exterior, too, including the roof.  Photograph every item in your tack room, milking parlor, or other “specialized” rooms or areas in the barn, and if you have horse boarders, make sure they have a copy of the photo taken of their tack and other equipment.  Every animal in the barn should be photographed with you, or their owner if they’re not yours.  Store the dated photos (or CD or DVD) with a copy of appropriate receipts attached, in a location off your property.

You should also maintain a description and photo of the horse that was in each of the stalls, or other livestock that were in each stall or enclosure, in case the remains are not recognizable.  The description should include height, weight, bone structure (fine- or big-boned), coat color, and any other attributes that could identify the animal. One reason for this description is to be able to truly identify animals that died in the fire to make sure a given animal actually did die in the fire and was not removed from the premises before the fire.  You can readily see the importance of this determination since an animal that is not accounted for can indicate a crime may have been committed.
Please take a few minutes here to read John Dietz’s article, Lessons Learned from a Barn Fire.  He explains other factors to consider in the immediate aftermath of a fire.

The Possibility of Criminal Activity

We must always investigate and follow through on situations where we find ourselves asking questions. However, tempting as it may seem to want to “investigate” on our own, investigation of possible criminal activities is best left to fire and law enforcement officials. They know what to look for, what questions to ask, and how to interpret their findings. Insurance investgators are also quite knowledgeable when it comes to causes of fires and possible criminal actions.

If you have any doubts or questions about how your fire started, you should, as soon as possible, write a statement for investigators–the state fire marshall, your fire department, your police department or sheriff’s office, and any insurance company representatives–telling them all you know about the fire, including such information as who was in the vicinity or actually in the barn at the time the fire started and any unusual behavior on the part of persons in or near the barn. Any information you can provide will assist in determining that the fire had an “accidental” cause, that is, an electrical short circuit or other malfunction, or that the fire was suspicious in origin and needs to be further investigated by the authorities having jurisdiction.
Grief Support – for People and Horses

Now that I’ve written these completely objective words and we can agree on their importance—objectively—if you have just suffered a barn fire, you are faced with overwhelming grief.  The emotional impact of a barn fire, or of any fire involving loss of lives, human or animal, is tremendous.  Disregard the rubble of the once-welcoming barn and the task of cleaning up the debris.  Buildings can be replaced and after a time you will be able to replay the good memories in the theater of your mind.

But this fire has just happened and you have lost a beloved friend.  There are things you told your horse or other companion animal that you told no one else.  If, like me, you were fortunate enough to grow up able to indulge in being “horse crazy,” there were probably several horses who helped you through some pretty lousy teen years, and maybe some trying times later on.   There’s something about horses that just fills your heart and smoothes the rough spots in your life.  Didn’t someone say, “If there are no horses in heaven I don’t want to go there?”

If you are grieving over your lost animal friend, or friends, there are places to get support and you should not be at all ashamed to ask for help.  I’ve checked out a few websites—there are many available—but these can get you started in the healing process:

Beth Szillagyi has written a wonderful book, Notes from Rainbow Bridge, which I reviewed  You’ll probably read this in one sitting and share it with others who need a little sunshine in the gloomy days that follow the loss of a dear animal friend.

And finally, there is an article by Kenneth Marcella, D.V.M. that appeared in the October 2004 issue of DVM Newsmagazine.  The title is “Managing Grief Responses” and it’s about how horses grieve and what can be done to help them through the loss of a companion.

A Final Word

Do everything you can to prevent fires from starting, but if a fire starts despite your best efforts at prevention, accept that some things are just beyond our control.

If a fire starts, try to save as many living beings as you can, but when it’s too late to save another soul, protect yourself by standing back.  Your life is your most valuable asset.  Don’t sacrifice yourself for an animal, no matter how beloved.  No one will blame you for what you couldn’t do.  You mustn’t blame yourself.

One of the best suggestions for helping yourself in this sad time comes from Cheryl MacNeil, a writer living in Scotia, New York, who focuses on the small moments and stories in our lives that become sacred.  Cheryl says, “In my work with Hospice over the past 7 years, I have learned there is a power in telling our stories and listening to the stories of others.  Each time two or more people sit down and begin to tell the stories that are deepest in their hearts, healing takes place.  It is important, not only to share your own story but to listen to the stories of others.” If you would like to learn more about Cheryl’s writing you may contact her by email at or

Finding A New Friend

One of the important things I’ve learned after many years of having loved and lost pets, is that sometimes you have to wait until the new pet in your life finds you.  The amazing thing is how often that happens, even if it does take what seems like an awfully long, discouraging time.  Perhaps you have had that experience also—you know, the dog at the shelter who looks at you and you just know you belong to each other. It happens with horses and other animals, too, so the best advice I can offer is to just keep looking.

You will never “replace” the animal friend you’ve lost, nor will you ever forget that friend. You should also not be expected to bypass the normal grief process. Take all the time you need to grieve, then, when you do go looking for that new friend, be kind with your comparisons.  Every individual, whether human or animal, brings something special, uniquely their own, to a relationship. Your next friend is out there, just waiting to be recognized.

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