Fireproofing Older Barns

"Fire is living and breathing. It has its own life," says Amy Tryon. "It is sort of like horses. Once you think you've got it all figured out, something will come along and show you that you don't." However, Tryon knows more than most about both fire and horses. At last year's Pan American Games, Tryon earned fourth place as an individual in the Three-Day Event. She pays the bills for herself and her two advanced-level horses as a firefighter with Eastside Fire and Rescue, headquartered near Seattle in Issaquah, Wash.

According to Tryon, an older barn might be less of a fire risk than a new barn. "As far as construction, a lot of the older barns would actually be safer because a long time ago, when wood wasn't so expensive, they used heavier timbers to build barns. It takes a lot more to burn through the timbers than it does the lightweight construction we use now. So, as long as it's in good condition and structurally sound, an older building would actually be more beneficial."

Adam Farnham also knows fire. As a fire protection engineer for Chesapeake Engineering and Design of Annapolis, Md., Farnham investigates, analyzes, and reconstructs building fires. He agrees on the benefits of the old wooden barns. "The old-style barn with the heavy timber construction is called old mill construction. The way it was designed, they figured they would have a fire and just be able to scrape the char off the wood, and it would be good to go again. So, it will burn for a certain length of time before it becomes structurally unsafe."

In addition to being well-built, old barns have a fan club. The Barn Again! program in Denver, Colo., helps an average of 700 barn owners each year. Co-sponsored by the National Trust for Historic Preservation and Successful Farming magazine, Barn Again! offers workshops, awards, and publications on using and rehabilitating old barns. They can be reached by calling 303/623-1504 or on the web at

This fire prevention advice is true in any barn, of any age: Don't smoke. Have a working fire extinguisher. However, old barns have been around longer, and with that comes its own set of problems.

Chenault Woodford is the president of CMW, Inc., of Lexington, Ky., the firm that designed and engineered the original buildings for the Kentucky Horse Park. "I think the same thing is true whether it's an old barn or a new barn. A older barn is likely to have more deteriorated electrical wiring. It's also less likely to have any kind of smoke detection devices and more likely to have a lot of dust built up. An older barn is more likely to have some kind of storeroom where people have been throwing rags and paint cans. An old barn gets like your grandmother's attic or basement, it's just where you throw stuff."

A fire involves more than the initial conflagration. How fast will the structure burn? Will the contents, shavings for example, spread the fire--or in firefighter terminology "add to the fire load?" If the contents or walls don't burn, how will they behave under intense heat? Farnham points out that while a brick wall will stop a fire from spreading, one side of the wall will be hot, the other cool. The difference eventually can cause the wall to fall over. Even the water used to put out your fire can add to the problem.

"I think where you run into trouble with the older construction is with the rot that you have," explains Tryon. "A lot of times in older barns the floors are wood, and if they're not taken care of, they can rot through. Then when you start putting water on a burning building, it increases the load on the building tremendously because water is so heavy. So, you end up causing collapses because of the amount of water sprayed rather than the fact that the building is compromised by the fire." This proves Tryon's original point of making sure the building is structurally sound.

Farnham also has seen problems with changes in wood over the years. "I think the majority of fires that I've seen are from equipment that was not properly maintained. They'll have a hot water heater with a flue that doesn't work properly. It's been that way for 20 years, so, they're not going to worry about it. The problem with things like that is if you expose wood to heat over time, wood tends to pyrolize, or distill. This reduces the wood's ability to tolerate heat. People say the wood spontaneously combusts, but it doesn't really. It just reacts more quickly to the heat it's been reacting to all those years and burns more easily."

In addition, age can take a toll on your wiring. "Wires tend to heat and cool, and that can lead to insulation stress if they are not properly secured," says Farnham. "When metal heats, it wants to expand. When it cools, it wants to contract. If you don't properly secure a wire, the expansion and contraction can chafe and wear through the insulative covering. Over a period of time, that's not a good thing because it can wear out the insulation on your wires."

What You Can Do

First, let's agree on terms. "There is some incorrect language that floats around out there," says Woodford. "A lot of people will make reference to a fireproof building. There is no such thing. There are no fireproof buildings. There are just buildings that are more or less resistant to fire."

To make your old barn more resistant to fire, consider what makes that barn more prone to fire and correct it.

Keep entrances and exits clear at all times. De-clutter the barn. Throw away whatever has been allowed to accumulate over the years.

Check your fire extinguisher. If it's been in place for a long time, it needs to be serviced or replaced. Buy more, and buy large, advises Farnham. "Have more extinguishers than you think you need, because when the chips are down, you probably need more extinguishers than you have. People always say, 'If I'd just had a bigger extinguisher...' "

Clean up dust and cobwebs. "In barns, some of the biggest problems are with all the dust and the cobwebs. They're actually a huge fire danger," warns Tryon.

Attack that dusty hayloft. Your old barn has had more time to accumulate dust. According to Woodford, "Probably the very worst examples are barns that have lofts where hay has been stored for many years. They're just full of dust. If you've got a barn like that, get the hay out of the loft. Sweep out the loft. Clean out the whole barn. Get as much dust out as you possibly can. It makes a healthier environment for the horses, anyway."

Store hay in a separate building. This is hard to do with that tempting hayloft just above your stalls, but consider the effect a year's supply of hay will have on an otherwise small fire. If you must keep hay in the barn, Woodford recommends keeping a supply for only two or three days.

Properly dispose of that hoard of old paint, fuel, etc. "Gas, diesel, oil, things like that, once everything gets heated up, they can do a tremendous amount to further fire expansion," says Tryon. Imagine the effect five gallons of stored gasoline will have when it comes in contact with a flame.

Fix those long-term, annoying problems that might be adding up to "spontaneous" combustion in your future.

Barn Again! recommends lightning rods for every 15 feet of roofline.

Check your wiring. Mice have had years to chew their way through hidden wires. Pay for a good electrical inspection. Farnham feels it will be money well-spent. "The most cost-effective thing for the majority of people to do to protect an older barn is check their utility systems. That's electrical, power, propane or natural gas if you have heat--make sure that everything's in good condition."

If you install more wiring, do it properly. "If you don't have much electrical in your barn already and you're adding more, put all the wiring in conduit. Yes, wiring in conduit costs about three times as much as wiring not in conduit, but it's absolutely the only thing that's safe in the long haul," declares Woodford.

Install fire alarms. Alarms suitable for barns are not the same as those suitable for houses--which you also should have to protect your home. A house alarm reacts to smoke. A barn alarm reacts to heat, flame, or infrared intrusion, such as fire. An infrared alarm also could notify you of a loose horse wandering the aisles. A household alarm in a barn could be set off by dust. "Everytime someone throws down a bale of hay and a bunch of dust flies up, the alarm will go off because the alarm will think it's smoke instead of just dust." Naturally, Woodford continues, barn alarms cost more. "As you might expect, anything having to do with horses costs more than anything having to do with anything else," she said with a knowing smile.

Consider a sprinkler system. "Putting in a sprinkler system is probably the single most effective thing you can do to prevent serious loss from a fire." But, Woodford cautions, be sure that your water pressure is up to it.

Keep the barn structurally sound. If you renovate a barn, consider sheet-rock or other fire resistant materials for walls and space dividers. Although expensive, those materials require no maintenance other than closing doors. If you are prone to leaving doors open, automatic doors are available that close in case of fire.

Have a plan of action. Families should have home plans so that each member knows how to get out, alternative routes, where to meet, etc. Barn owners need similar emergency plans. Who calls 911 (or other emergency personnel)? Where is the safest pasture? Can all horses go out together? Are there lead ropes and halters easily available for all horses?

Final Words

If you want to prevent a fire, look in the mirror. Tryon's fire department covers 210 square miles, from residential houses to barns and agricultural properties to wilderness. What is the main cause of fires? People. "Most of the fires that we go to are human error." Her husband, who also is a firefighter, added that, "If barn owners have additional questions or would like help in planning for an emergency, contact your local fire department. Those are the people coming when something goes wrong, so the sooner they can be brought into the picture, the better."

"Traditionally," says Farnham, "From an industrial standpoint, people have always said that people are the cause of 99% of all the problems. So, if you don't have people in a barn, you'll never have a problem. Eventually, it will fall down because it hasn't been maintained, but it probably will never burn."

About the Author

Katherine Walcott

Katherine Walcott is a freelance writer living in the countryside near Birmingham, Al. She writes for anyone she can talk into paying her and rides whatever disciplines she can talk her horses into doing.

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