Letter Re: Barns, Barn Designs, and Fire

Hello James,
I have had the heart rending experience of watching my neighbor’s barn burn to the ground a few days ago. His livestock fleeing out of it, in desperation… I don’t think they all made it. This brings up many topics of discussion. In moving to the country, it is easy to use an old building like it was designed to handle new demands, (i.e.- specifically power consumption, hot temp equipment storage, etc…). Somewhere in your archives the topic of fire protection came to mind. I hate to admit, but it did not sink in like it did seeing that massive structure go from first sight of smoke to flattened, in 20 minutes.
Here are a few observations that may have contributed to this fire-
1). Old building construction methods (“balloon” type framing.)
2). Old wood will never be fireproof
3). 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s wiring is not likely to be safe to use in an agricultural building where the wires are almost always exposed to rodents and the elements, resulting in damage.
[JWR Adds:  Any such wiring should be completely replaced with modern wiring that is fully encased in galvanized steel conduit!]
4). Concrete and heat do not mix
5). Leave a viable escape route for the livestock, (i.e.-light duty tube gates, light duty flat channel gates, or just electric fence strands in aisleways.)
6). Storing wet/damp hay
7). Overloading electrical wiring/circuitry

If you own an older agricultural building and plan on needing it because that new “Morton” building is too expensive, than plan on some time consuming preventatives. Fire stops, (i.e.- draft stops) are the most important contribution you can make yourself with little expense. Take the time and plug every dang gap,crack,void, or cavity that permits you to view or pass air between the levels. This at the very least will buy you more time until the fire department arrives.
You will be better off to condemn the power service to the barn than to overload it and have a catastrophe.
Once a structure has a fire, the foundation and associated concrete items are severely structurally damaged. Try tossing a cement masons block into a fire and leave there until the next day, give it a tap with a bat, and then [for comparison] tap an unfired block. The fired block is not worthy of the structural demands it was designed to meet any longer. In the case of my neighbors barn fire, the adjoining buildings suffered damage that we can’t see simply from the heat. The grain silos, (concrete and steel) ignited their contents from heat alone. These are still burning and are now a 7 story disaster waiting to happen. I have seen it happen before. They will collapse without warning.
Wet/damp hay WILL combust and cause many barn fires. DO NOT BALE WET OR HAY THAT IS DAMP WITH DEW! Save yourself some money and hire it done by an expert. One last topic worth discussing is where should you put your Gun Safe. If your safe is situated over a basement, crawl space, or basically any wood structure below, you are asking for trouble. If/when you have a fire in the building that houses the Gun Safe, and it collapses upon itself, you literally have less than an hour to retrieve your safe before the contents are toast. Think about locating your safe on a north wall, (winds in much of the U.S.A. are predominantly from the N.-N.W.) This could give you the ability to get closer to the safe with some piece of equipment (in the event of a fire) and increase your chances of retrieving it. Consider welding a heavy chain to the safe and hiding [the tail end of it out the building, an slightly bury it [and “flag” the end, somehow.] A backhoe could easily reach the chain and hook it with it’s teeth to rip the safe from the hot coals. Do not store ANY ammunition inside your vault. Once the internal temps get so far, the ammunition will start cooking off. In doing so, it will likely ruin all the contents of your safe. At least there is a chance of salvation if there is not any ammo in the safe.

I pray for those who have experienced a fire. There are very few forces like it in nature. It was a very helpless feeling. Plan, Prepare, Do not despair, -The Wanderer

JWR Replies:  For any of you that might ever build a farm from scratch, even if you build a steel barn there is always a greater risk of barn fires than house fires. Therefore, it is important that, terrain permitting, you: a.) build your barn at least 50 feet away from your house, b.) Make sure that your house has a fire-proof roof, c.) Install a proper fire fighting hose rig with at least a 2,000 gallon cistern feeding a 1.5-inch or larger service line, preferably gravity-fed, and d.)  Build your house upwind from your barn. (BTW, the latter is an advantage vis-a-vis barn smells, too.)