Avoiding the risk of fire

  • It takes just 2min for a horse to die in a fire. That’s enough time for a straw fire to burn an area the size of an average box and this is why prevention is the key to fire safety, according to Harry Paviour, a former fireman and the author of Guidelines for Fire Safety in Equine and Agricultural Premises.

    “You have only 30sec to get a horse out unharmed before smoke starts searing his lungs. And you can’t bring animals back to life,” he says.

    Good housekeeping habits, such as banning smoking on the yard and making sure the hay is properly dry before storing it, are critical to fire safety. But buyers who are planning to add or renovate a yard in their new home can make sure that they take some more structural precautions.

    Choosing the right layout for a property can significantly reduce the risk of fire and can make it enormously easier for firefighters to take prompt action.

    “Check that the buildings aren’t too close,” recommends equestrian agent George Windsor-Clive, who points out that crammed yards allow fire to spread from barn to barn through radiation.

    Ideally, buildings should be at least 20ft apart, according to Devon Fire Rescue officer Peter Smith, but a distance of 10ft is the minimum gap required to ensure firefighters can get safely to the scene. The same consideration applies to driveways and bridges, which are often too narrow or weak to allow a fire engine through.

    It is also vital to ensure that the stables are well placed in relation to other buildings in the yard. Hay and bedding should preferably be stored in separate stone or brick buildings at a safe distance from the stable block because this can help contain the damage if they accidentally catch fire.

    “Storing hay or store in a building well away from the stables would be the ideal scenario,” says equestrian architect Keith Warth.

    Tackrooms, which have a high fire risk according to Paviour, should be “structurally separated from the stables by material such as concrete blocks and a fire-resistant door”.

    Stables and storerooms should be as far as possible from muck heaps, gas containers, and garages.

    “Keep traffic separate,” urges Windsor-Clive. Not only can it be dangerous for horses to have cars driving across the yard, but every vehicle is a potential fire hazard. Hot exhaust pipes can easily light up hay or straw, so keep parking areas close enough for convenience but separate from the yard.

    “Thought must also be given to heating,” recommends Barry Fehler, managing director of South Essex Insurance Brokers. The heating system must be adequate to the yard and well planned to prevent adopting “informal” solutions that may endanger the property at a later stage. “Many premises aren’t heated in a formal fashion and the problem is if someone has a paraffin or gas heater in the tackroom,” points out Fehler.

    Every effort must go into making stables as safe as possible. Plan for the number of horses you want to have — now and in the future.

    “Sometimes, the need to put in more horses may overcome concerns of safety,” says Warth. “In some yards, you have boxes beyond boxes and if you have an emergency, you have a problem.”

    Stable doors should swing outwards because this makes them easier to open in an emergency, and American-style barns should have plenty of exits at the front and the back to ensure the horses can get out in any circumstance. Surprising as this may sound, the stables’ height and roof volume may also make a difference. This is because when ceiling temperatures reach a certain level, the hot air within the building will ignite every combustible substance inside.

    “A high ceiling will also allow a longer period of time before smoke affects horses,” says Smith, who stresses the importance of good ventilation through windows, roof vents and low-melting point plastic sheets to lessen the impact of smoke and toxic gases. “And wherever possible divide the stables into different sections every two or three stalls, with concrete block partitions all the way up to the roof,” adds Paviour.

    Effective fire protection depends on choosing the right materials for stabling, and people have to broker a compromise over safety, cost and their horses’ comfort. Looking at it purely from a prevention viewpoint, brick or stone buildings are the safest bet because they are fire-resistant. This is great if the property has masonry outbuildings suitable for conversion, but if it doesn’t having a yard purpose-built can be expensive and sometimes a planning nightmare.

    “Brick and stone are up to 50% more expensive than timber,” warns agri-equestrian design consultant David Wood. “I tend to use a combination of materials that are either non-combustible or with a high melting point. Depending on the type of yard, you could have brick so high and timber above. In American barns, I’d use concrete blocks up to a certain height with internal plywood lining and external horizontal boarding.”

    Most people, however, go for timber stables because they are practical and affordable. In this case, it is best to treat the wood with fire-retardants. This allows it to withstand the flames longer. Choose the product with care because some fire retardants may wash out in very damp conditions — in a washroom, for example or if a stable door is washed often — and others may be noxious to horses.

    “And read the can for other wood treatments because some may accelerate fire,” warns Smith.

    As for the bedding: “Rubber mats are best because they reduce the potential for serious fire,” says Paviour.

    Another useful trick that can easily be applied to existing facilities is to create a firebreak by clearing the area immediately around the stables of trees, grass, shrubbery and any flammable refuse.

    “Gorse burns at 2 times its height, so flames from a 5ft gorse bush will reach 12ft high. Something 10ft away will be scorched and may burn, so leave 10-15ft gap as a firebreak,” says Smith.

    Neglecting less visible features of a yard, such as wiring, is easy — but dangerous. Fehler cites electrical problems as the second most common cause of fires after smoking. “A well maintained property is less likely to catch fire,” he says.

    Wiring must be adequate for the number and nature of appliances used in the yard, which should in any case be kept to the bare minimum. If the fittings are old, they must be checked by a professional electrician and replaced where necessary.

    “Protect wires. Keep them away from horses and put them in a metal conduit if you can’t,” urges Wood. “The same applies with lighting, which should be protected and kept well out of the way of horses because they could kick it or bite it.”

    And because no equine facility is ever completely safe, it is definitely worth investing in early-warning equipment to sense and douse fire.

    “Smoke detectors are among the most effective tools and although some may give false alarms if fitted in dusty or damp stables, you can buy some that don’t. You ought to contact your insurance firm to see whether there is a reduction in premiums for them,” says Smith.

    “At the very least, however, have enough fire extinguishers, and the place to put them,” says Windsor-Clive. But, warns Smith, fire extinguishers are difficult to operate: “If you do have one, make sure people know how to use it.”

    Paviour also suggests installing sprinklers, which have a high success rate in quelling fire, as long as they are linked to an adequate water supply. He is conscious that fitting sprinklers, like many other fire prevention measures, is expensive. But, he says, people should weigh it against the cost of a fire.

    “It all comes down to cost. Only the owner can make this decision against the value of his horses.”

  • This property feature was first published in Horse & Hound (24 March, ’05)

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