Ten Tips to Prevent a Barn Fire

10 steps you can take to prevent barn fires.

Several years ago we lost our goat barn in a fire.

Not only did we lose the two-year-old metal pole barn, we lost our winter supply of hay, our livestock feed and supplies, and all of the Chief’s hand and power tools. We didn’t even have a shovel to clean up the mess.

But by far the biggest loss was my herd of 16 dairy goats.

This post was updated and rewritten in May 2024.

Even though it’s been eight years, I’m still not able to go back over all the details of that day. My thoughts skirt around what happened, but there is a place in my brain where the hardest memories are still locked tightly away, unvisited.

Ever since that day, I’ve been on a mission to save barns. I want to save your goats, your horse, your rabbits and barn cats, and to keep your winter supply of hay and feed safe and secure. You'll find my tips to prevent fires further down in this post.

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The goat barn

Our wood-framed metal building housed our dairy goats, their hay and feed, with the Chief’s workshop in one corner. The wide runway down the middle allowed the goats to mingle as a herd, with stalls on the back side for kidding and to separate kids from the does overnight.

One stall held feed, another was my milking "room" and back in the corner was the stall where my English shepherd Pete herded the goats in the morning so they wouldn’t run me over as I carried buckets of grain and set up for the morning milking.

When the morning chores were finished, the goats were let out into their outside pen for the day, and moved back into the barn in the evening.

Our generator, wood chipper, mowers, and so on were stored in the front of the barn near the overhead door, and on the other side of the door was a stall we’d converted into a pen for our blind cat Betsy and her companion cat Fairy.

The cause of the fire

On that cold January day, I did the evening chores a bit early and tucked the goats into the barn for the night. It wasn’t dark yet, but I had dinner to prepare…

Afterwards, the fire chief pointed to the corner of the building where the fire had started, where my milking stall had been. One of the weanling does had evidently jumped on the milk stand and stretched her head up to bite an electrical wire.

I knew which one it was, even before I was told what color she was. Lark, the pretty white doe kid, was always the adventurous one, leading the other kids into trouble and poking her head where it didn’t belong.

From there the flames spread across the straw-covered floor to the machinery, where gasoline accelerated the fire.

And that, my friends, is as far as my mind can go. I keep the rest blocked out. Maybe someday I’ll be able to write it down or to talk about it, but twelve years hasn’t been long enough.

Ten tips to help you make a barn fire safety plan.
Ironically, this panel was part of our generator, which we lost in the fire.

How ironic

I think it’s ironic that this happened to me – to us, of course, but … to me. I’ve always been fire cautious and I had a good fire safety plan in place. My family thought I was obsessive about fires.

My maternal grandfather raised horses and had a large white sign on his front gate with black handpainted letters commanding NO SMOKING. No one, and I mean no one, was allowed to smoke on his property.

Can you imagine my shock when we bought hay two years ago from a local farmer, who then sat down on a square bale in his own barn and lit a cigarette? 

I was speechless. And the look on the Chief's face told me I'd better stay speechless, so I bit my tongue - but it was nearly bleeding when we drove away a few minutes later.

My father was a great example of being prepared, of having a plan and practicing it. We had fire drills and earthquake drills. We never put anything on the stairs in our two-story home because it could impede our exit in an emergency.

So I was extra careful about fire safety. I worried constantly during wildfire season here in Oklahoma, scanning the horizon several times a day. We kept the brush down, exits clear and smoking wasn’t allowed.

I never used a light or a heater in the chicken coop in the winter, and I raised chicks in the summer heat so I didn’t have to use a heat lamp in the brooder.

And yet, we had a fire.

Make a barn fire safety plan with these ten tips.

The blessings

My motto is that there is always, always something to be thankful for. Sometimes you have to look really hard, but there are blessings in everything.

Yes, even in this situation there were blessings.

  • While I’ve wished I’d been in the barn and could have prevented this from happening, or at least gotten some or all of the goats out, I myself might not have made it out of the barn. The feed stall, where I probably would have been, was in the opposite corner of the barn and there were no windows or doors nearby. The fire could have trapped me inside, and I know I would have been more focused on getting the animals out than on my own safety.
  • Our dogs and the barn cats all came back home over the next couple of days – all except Betsy and Fairy of course, who sadly had been trapped inside the barn with the goats – but the others were unhurt.
  • We suffered little collateral damage. We had to replace the tires on our trailer that was parked next to the barn, and we replaced the headlights and the melted bumper on our pick-up. It could have been much worse.
  • A neighbor brought us a bag of feed for the horses that night. Friends and even strangers donated hay. 
  • A friend brought her husband and son to bury the goats so I would be spared that ordeal.
  • Someone organized a work party: a group of friends and our 4-H club members came to help us clean up. They even brought shovels, realizing we might not have any.

    Barn fires are a year-round danger

    According to the National Fire Incident Reporting System (NFIRS), barn fires are common during both the winter and summer.

    • Winter barn fires are often the result of heating equipment. 
    • Fans are one of the leading causes of summer barn fires.
    • Spontaneous combustion of hay bales and lightning strikes also top the list, no matter what the season.

    How to make a fire safety policy for your barn

    Decide on the basic rules that must be followed in your barn - by yourself and by any visitors. It's your barn, and your rules. Don't feel guilty about having them and enforcing them.

    Write down your list of fire safety rules. Writing something down helps to cement it in your mind so you are less likely to forget.

    Hang the list in a prominent place, such as in your barn’s tack room or near the barn door - and enforce the rules!

    Lark was the most likely perpetrator of our barn fire.
    Lark, who was evidently the cause of our barn fire.

    Ten tips to help prevent barn fires

    1. No Smoking Allowed - hay, straw and dried-out manure are all highly flammable. Hang a No Smoking sign in your barn to let visitors know they can't light up.

    2. Don't allow debris to pile up in or around your barn. Clean up old wood, empty pallets and piles of dead brush and trash.

    3. Store hay, straw and bedding in another building, not in your livestock barn.

    4. Inspect the electrical wiring for worn spots or damage from rodents. Electrical wiring should be run through conduit for the highest level of safety. (That tip right there could have prevented our fire. We thought the wiring was high enough that a goat couldn't reach it, but I'd put the milk stand right there...)

    5. Fans are one of the leading causes of summer barn fires. House fans are not made to withstand the dust in a barn; dust can clog up the motor and cause a fire. Use a fan made for use in a barn, available at farm supply stores such as Tractor Supply Co. or at Amazon.

    6. Cobwebs and dust are flammable, and they allow flames to move rapidly from one end of the barn to another. Use an old broom to keep your beams and walls cobweb-free.

    7. Check light bulbs in your barn. Don't let them be covered with dust and dirt. Keep light switches and outlets free of dust.

    8. Keep a fire extinguisher in the barn and know how to use it.

    9. Don't store flammables in the barn. Gasoline and gas-powered machinery are obvious, but how about those bottles of fly spray, cleaning products and other flammable materials? Find another place to store them, such as in your stock trailer.

    10. Create a defensible space around your barn to slow down or stop the spread of fire. Trim tree branches so that they are at least ten feet from the roof and keep grass and brush trimmed within a thirty-foot perimeter of your structure.

    Review your fire safety plan at least twice a year, perhaps when the seasons change or when we change the clocks to and from Daylight Savings Time.

    Right now is a good time to check your list of fire safety precautions. Take an afternoon to inspect your barn for these problems, and if you find a discrepancy, fix it immediately.

    While you're checking your fire safety list in the barn, apply these tips to your home as well. You probably don't store hay in your house, but the rest of these tips apply to homes and other structures too.

    More details about the fire, and updates on our recovery.

    Ten tips for barn fire safety

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    Related posts:
    How to prepare for winter storms
    Get ready for tornado season
    Make an emergency grab-and-go binder

    10 steps you can take to keep your barn safe from a barn fire.


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