Lessons From History: Fire Protection In Barns


You may remember learning about the great Chicago fire of October 8, 1871, when you were young. But did you know that on the very same day in Peshtigo, Wisconsin, there was also an extremely devastating fire? It started in the forest on the outskirts of the town and quickly engulfed structure after structure, including barns. In fact, more than 1,100 people lost their lives due to the fire in Wisconsin, as compared to the 300 in Chicago.

Both of these fires prompted officials to institute stricter building codes for fire protection, particularly in barns that were made of wood and used for hay storage. While it's unknown what started the Peshtigo fire, there are several theories regarding how the Chicago fire started, and one of them is from spontaneous combustion of hay. Consider how the Chicago fire started and what you can learn from it to protect your own barn. 

Spontaneous combustion of hay

It may seem that dry hay is more combustible than wet hay, but the opposite it true. Hay with a moisture content of more than 22% has the risk of spontaneous combustion. The reason for this is due to the chemical reaction of the breaking down of the organic compounds and the bacteria that thrive in moist areas, which produces heat. The more this reaction continues, the more rapidly heat rises. If it's allowed to continue, temperatures can reach in excess of 212 degrees, which is the point in when hay could easily ignite, and heat from nearby flames can add fuel to the fire, so to speak. 

Fire protection engineering in a barn 

If you own a barn, your barn contains features that were developed from part of what was learned in the two famous fires of 1871, primarily regarding spontaneous combustion, and they are: 

Hay loft. Heat, flames, and smoke rise. The structure of a barn stands a better chance of having as minimal damage as possible when the hay bales are stored in a hay loft. That way, if the hay does spontaneously combust, the fire will move upwards, which will allow you to evacuate any animals below from their stalls. However, ideally, hay should be stored in a separate building if at all possible. 

Covers over hay drops. There are holes in the flooring of the hay loft, which are used to drop hay to the ground level when the hay is needed. It's necessary to cover the hay drops so errant, flaming straws of hay do not drop to the floor below. 

Cupola. A cupola is a small dome or tower that is located on the roof of a barn to provide for ventilation. Some barns have several cupolas, especially larger barns that house horses or livestock. Ventilation through the cupola is important in keeping moisture in the air to a minimum, which is particularly important as animals produce moisture from their breaths and when they relieve themselves. Cupolas can also vent smoke out of the barn in case of a fire. 

Necessary barn tools to prevent fire

In addition to those features, here are several tools that are necessary for fire protection in barn:

  • a broom to sweep up all lose pieces of hay so a fire doesn't spread sideways
  • probes to detect moisture and heat inside hay bales
  • fire sensing and suppression equipment to reduce the loss of life and property

Whether you are having a barn built or already own a barn, it's important to contact a fire protection engineering firm to ensure your barn, hay, and horses or livestock are adequately protected. An engineer can determine the appropriate fire sensing and suppression equipment to install in your barn, which may include any combination of heat and smoke detectors, fire alarm monitors and monitoring service, sprinkler systems with pressurized water, and automatic bay door and stall door openers for the animals to escape the barn should a fire occur. 

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Disaster Recovery: Consultants Can Help Protect Your Business

When I started my own business, I thought I had everything figured out. Then we suffered a catastrophic loss due to a heavy storm. It took me months to recover my company's network infrastructure, and we lost a lot of critical data. Despite the fact that I had insurance, I never thought about having a disaster recovery plan in place for my network. I created this site to teach other small business owners about how to work with a technology consultant to create a contingency plan that includes offsite backups, a response plan, and even a skeleton structure for building an emergency network to help keep your business running. I hope the information here helps you to plan and prep to avoid the disaster I faced.

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