As horse owners, we know that the risk of fire, especially in California, is both high and terrifying. Preparing horses for a wildfire or barn fire evacuation requires an additional level of planning, preparedness and practice. Building an evacuation plan and practicing that plan increases the potential that your horses will be able to leave safely if and when the time arrives.
If you have a barn filled with horses, it is essential that you understand how fires start and how to deal with them. But the single most important thing is to be vigilant at all times. Preventing barn fires and being well prepared to deal with a fire can mean the difference between life and death for your horses and also allows you and your family to safely leave in a timely manner.
Keep in mind, you should also be prepared for an occasion in which a wildfire’s proximity does not permit the time needed to load horses. In these unfortunate situations, it is best to turn them loose and not leave them confined in a barn or pasture. Close the doors and gates so they cannot re-enter the area and get yourself to safety as quickly as possible. Leaving your horses unrestricted gives them a better chance of finding their own way to safety.
How a Fire Behaves
According to the National Park Service, the Fire Behavior Triangle explains much of what we need to know about how a fire behaves. A wildfire behaves according to the environment in which it is burning. This environment consists of various elements of fuels, topography and weather. These elements and their reactions with one another – and the fire itself – determine the behavior of the fire. Just like there is a fire triangle, made up of heat, oxygen, and fuel, there is another triangle called the fire behavior triangle. The three legs of this triangle are fuels, weather, and topography. The sections below go more in depth into each of these and their influence on fire.
A fuel’s composition, including moisture level, chemical makeup, and density, determines its degree of flammability. Moisture level is the most important consideration. Live trees usually contain a great deal of moisture and dead logs contain very little. The moisture content and distribution of these fuels define how quickly a fire can spread and how intense or hot a fire may become. High moisture content will slow the burning process, because heat from the fire must first eliminate moisture.
In addition to moisture, a fuel’s chemical makeup determines how readily it will burn. Some plants, shrubs, and trees contain oils or resins that promote combustion, causing them to burn more easily, quickly, or intensely than those without such oils. Finally, density of a fuel influences its flammability. If fuel particles are close together, they will ignite each other, causing the fuel to burn readily. But if fuel particles are so close that air cannot circulate easily, the fuel will not burn freely.
Soil types also must be considered because fire affects the environment above and below the surface. Soil moisture content, the amount of organic matter present, and the duration of the fire determine to what extent fire will affect soil.
Weather conditions such as wind, temperature, and humidity also contribute to fire behavior. Wind is one of the most important factors because it can bring a fresh supply of oxygen to the fire and push the fire toward a new fuel source.
Temperature of fuels is determined by the ambient temperature because fuels attain their heat by absorbing surrounding solar radiation. The temperature of a fuel influences its susceptibility to ignition. In general, fuels will ignite more readily at high temperatures than at low temperatures.
Humidity, the amount of water vapor in the air, affects the moisture level of a fuel. At low humidity levels, fuels become dry and, therefore, catch fire more easily and burn more quickly than when humidity levels are high.
Topography describes land shape. It can include descriptions of elevation with the height above sea level; slope, the steepness of the land; aspect, the direction a slope faces (e.g., the south side of a canyon will have a north-facing slope); features, such as canyons, valleys, rivers, etc.
These topographical features can help or hinder the spread of fire. For example, a rocky slope can act as a great natural fire break due to a lack of fuel and wide gap of open space. Drainages can act as fire breaks, as well if fuels are moist or there is little vegetation. Beyond the shape of the land, it is also important to consider elevation, slope, and aspect. Elevation and aspect can determine how hot and dry a given area will be. For example, higher elevations will be drier but colder than low ones, and a north-facing slope will be slower to heat up or dry out). Slope can determine how quickly a fire will move up or down hills. For example, if a fire ignites at the bottom of a steep slope, it will spread much more quickly upwards because it can pre-heat the upcoming fuels with rising hot air, and upward drafts are more likely to create spot fires.
Frightened Animal Behavior
Frightened animals are unpredictable. Even the gentlest horse can become dangerous when frightened. Horses are prey animals, meaning that they are naturally wary and cautious about new situations, places, and people. In the wild, horses stay alive by having sharp instincts and a fast flight response to danger. It is important for anyone who will be around horses to recognize when a horse is frightened for their own safety and that of the animal.
During an emergency, it is common for a frightened or disoriented horse to try and return back to its stall where it feels the safest. As stated above, if you cannot get your horse to safety, be sure to close all doors and gates so they will not get themselves trapped without a means of escape.
Biggest Causes of Animal Death in Fires
- Halters and lead ropes not easily accessible
- Debris or equipment in aisleways and stall bedding that adds to the fire fuel load
- 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 that are injured or killed by the heavy, burning, falling debris
Fire Prevention Is the Best Protection
There is no such thing as a fireproof building, especially in an agricultural settings. Building design, management, and safety practices are the best way to minimize the risk of fires. It has been estimated that the root cause of 95 percent of preventable horse barn fires is from careless smoking or faulty electrical systems. Fires can grow quickly and give no warning. In most cases, if you see flames, it is already too late. The damage a fire causes grows exponentially with the amount of time it has burned.
Fire is extremely dangerous at any stage of growth and controlling it is best left up to the professionals. Most barn fires occur in the winter when most forage and bedding is stored, electrical use is high, and equipment repairs and upgrades are traditionally made. Most of the components in a horse barn are highly flammable.