“Fire” is a four-letter word no horse owner wants to hear. But if the unthinkable happens, a little knowledge and preparation can go a long way.
Fire is one of the scariest scenarios when it comes to horses. Fire is fluid and moves quickly – faster than you can run, and sometimes faster than you can drive. It can have a devastating impact on you, your horse, your property, your neighbors, and the people who come to help you. Fire is capricious and unforgiving – it can even generate its own weather.
The US and Canada have always had areas prone to fire, such as Southern California. However, climate change is making the fire season longer, more intense and more widespread. A study funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has forecasted a dramatic increase in the frequency and scale of wildfires over the next several decades.i
In addition to a wildfire’s natural causes, such as lightning and droughts (that turn shrubs and trees into kindling), we also have to contend with human interference – power lines sparking, overgrown forests, unextinguished cigarettes, burning debris, arson, and the invasion of wilderness by people who build homes and other structures among pristine woodland. In the past 20 years, 84% of all wildfires were of human origin.ii
The triangles of fire behavior
Fire needs three things to burn: air (oxygen), fuel and heat. Take away any one leg of this triangle and the fire will fail.
Wildfires have another triangle of behavior: topography, weather and fuel.
Topography: This term refers to the physical features of an area. Wind and fire both run faster uphill. The fire warms and dries the vegetation in front of it, making it burn faster and hotter. Hills that face south have warmer drier vegetation.
Weather: Rain, wind, temperature and humidity all have an effect. Wind can supply oxygen to grow the fire, or blow embers and start a new one. Low humidity and high temperatures cause vegetation to dry and become more flammable.
Fuel: This is the material that’s burning. The type of fuel directly affects how the fire behaves. Fire through dry grasslands can travel at high speed but won’t burn for long. Hardwood trees, on the other hand, can burn for a long time at very high temperatures. Major sources of fuel for modern wildfires are structures – for example, houses or barns.
Procedures for preparedness
Whether we’re talking about wildland or structural fires, there are things you can do to keep yourself and your horse safe.
- Remove vegetation and debris from around your stable.
- Store fuels (hay, bedding, gasoline, etc.) in another structure, downwind of your stable.
- Does the wind blow from one direction during fire season? This is the prevailing wind. Be rigorous about keeping debris, grasses, shrubs and trees cleared in that direction. For instance, if the wind blows from the south, keep the south side of your barn clear.
- Have a ladder on each long side of the stable so responders can reach your roof if necessary.
- Install an outside faucet. Attach a hose that will stretch down each long side of the barn.
- Make sure your physical address is very clearly posted at the road.
- Each stall should have an outside door (even if there is an inside one) leading to a field/pasture that is blocked off from the road/driveway.
- Have at least two exit doors from your stable.
- Aisles should be wide enough for two horses to pass and should be clear of all equipment/feed/tack.
- Hang fire extinguishers at each exit and every four stalls in a large stable. They should be regularly inspected and everyone should know how to use them.
- Consider installing a sprinkler system. It can mean the difference between life and death, keeping flames and fumes at bay while you evacuate and await first responders.
- Do not use household appliances and equipment in your stable. Your electrical wiring should run through a non-corrosive conduit and plugs should be the outdoor covered variety.
- Every horse in your stable should readily load into a trailer under all circumstances. Start training now!
- During fire season, leave your hauling vehicle attached to your trailer, pointing toward the road.
- Keep your fuel tank full and “go bags” onboard.
- Every horse should have identification (equestrisafe.com), and his “go bag” should contain meds, vaccination certificates, proof of purchase, ID sheet with your contact information, description of the horse, along with pictures that clearly feature you and your horse together. (Visit redjeansink.com/downloads.html to print and download helpful documents to keep in your “go bag”.)
- Coordinate with stables outside your area where you can take your horses during a disaster. Have at least two in different directions.
Finally, every stable owner should write up a fire plan and practice it with regular fire drills. You won’t know if it works unless you practice it. This is especially true if you have a boarding or training stable, where a number of people are passing through. Make it fun, interesting and educational – and most important of all, make it mandatory.
Michelle Staples has been involved in animal and human safety since 2001. Her book, Save Your Horse! A Horse Owner’s Guide to Large Animal Rescue (amazon.com/Horse-Owners-Guide-Animal-Rescue-ebook/dp/B00OSWTUZW/) was the first written on the subject. Along with its Australian counterpart, Equine Emergency Rescue (with MaryAnne Leighton, equineer.com), this classic is still the only non-textbook on LAR. Some of Michelle’s accomplishments include EMT, CERT (Community Emergency Response Team with FEMA) instructor, CPR/first aid instructor, university instructor (University of Guelph and Breyer State), NDART (National Disaster Animal Response Team with the HSUS), rehoming and retraining horses, especially Standardbreds, and Special Olympics riding coach. redjeansink.com