The only fire and safety training I had before last week in my Equine Management class was in elementary school.
“Stop, drop, and roll!” I went home and made a map of our house and possible escape routes. My parents didn’t really even entertain the idea that we needed to have a “meet up” point outside the house. So, I decided at least I would have my own escape route out my window, across the roof of the porch, and down a tree. Fortunately, I never had to use that plan.
After that youthful momentary obsession with fire safety I never gave it much thought again. My last job as a certified pharmacy technician for a major hospital system did require continuing education in their emergency preparedness standards, but that was knowing things like code red means fire, or that PASS stands for pull, aim, squeeze, and sweep for a fire extinguisher. I never actually held one and put out a fire.
Two years ago, my truck caught on fire due to a fault in the engine block heater. Then it caught the attached garage on fire. I heard someone outside yelling, but assumed it was a fight or something I didn’t want to get involved in. It wasn’t until my neighbor was pounding on my front door screaming that my truck was on fire that I started taking action.
But now I know I took the wrong action. What I didn’t know about fire almost cost me not only my life, but also the lives of my pets. Yes I immediately called 911, but I should’ve gotten my pets contained, out of the house, and moved to safety.
Instead I started to try to put out the fire with buckets of water from the fishpond. The hood of my truck was fully engulfed in flame and the fire was licking up the outside of the garage door. Each bucketful had no effect. My dog was standing on the lawn frozen in terror watching me. I know I was screaming “help” over and over again at the top of my lungs. I heard glass breaking, but I kept looking at the intact windshield. What I didn’t realize was that it was the windows in the garage door blowing out.
Two police officers appeared in my yard and were pulling me away from the truck explaining that it could blow up at any second. I suddenly realized my pets were in danger and started rushing back into the house. They tried to restrain me but I fought them off somehow. I remember black smoke pouring into the house around the door from the kitchen to the garage with a force that is hard to describe. Everything seemed like it was in slow motion. I can still picture every second in my mind.
I handed the now leashed dog to one officer and was running towards the back of the house for the cat when the second officer was able to grab me and pull me out of the house. The next thing I knew I was standing on my neighbor’s porch drenched from the rain watching the firefighters break into my still burning truck to roll it away from the house. Another set of firefighters was hitting the house and truck with water, while another crew was trying to break down the garage door.
Last week Gina Gonzales, a Loveland Firefighter, founder and board member of a veterinary response team in Larimer County called TEAR, came to speak to my Equine Management class about fire safety and proactively planning for safety and evacuations with horses during emergencies.
She discussed the animal owner’s perception of the emergency situation verses the firefighters perception and role. It explained why the first responders were trying to save me first. They needed me out of danger before they could rescue my pets and property.
I think the moment it hit home was when she showed us a picture of a barn on fire. Black smoke was billowing out of the hayloft, the stalls were barely visible through the orange flames and the firefighter was outside with a hose. Nobody was rushing inside. She said smoke was made of particles that hadn’t caught on fire yet, they were changing from a solid to a gas. Black smoke is about 300 degrees Fahrenheit. Your skin will fall off at 125 degrees, and flames in a flash over, covering the building like that, were 1200 degrees. Did we think any horse in there could even still be alive? No. That’s why no one was rushing in. That’s why we shouldn’t rush in.
Ms. Gonzales told us we need to be proactive in saving our animals and she gave us a plan to do it. We went over the major causes of fires in barns such as hay stored in the barn self combusting from heat build up; straw, manure and oil soaked clothes could do the same thing. Birds and rodents could damage exposed wires so wires should be in metal conduit. Electrical appliances in the barn can be a recipe for fire. Of course fire can come from the outside as well, like wildfires.
So how can you prevent fires and save your animals? Ms. Gonzales said you can have your local fire department inspect your barn and make suggestions to make it safer. Don’t store hay or shavings in the barn. Don’t park gas-powered vehicles like tractors inside. If your barn roof is metal, vent it. Install a sprinkler system, and have cleared fire lanes around buildings and outside pens.
Then practice evacuating your horses. Try making it a game where you open all the stall doors and yell and scream while moving them towards an outside pen. Once you get them in the pen give them a treat like carrots. Practice until the horses don’t think it’s a big deal anymore. Hopefully you won’t ever have to experience a fire, but if you do, you and your horses will have a plan. And remember after you are all out shut the barn door. That way no horses will be able to go back in. Yes, even horses will do crazy things in a fire like trying to run back in to the barn where they’re normally safe.
You can even preplan for wildfires. It is important to have a defensible space around your barn, pens, and home. That means removing brush and trees that can bring the fire closer. Have a metal roof put on the buildings and make sure your driveway can accommodate a fire truck. If you’re planning a bridge that leads to your property, make sure it can handle the weight of a fire truck, not just your vehicles.
If you need to evacuate know all the possible routes out of your area. Can you get your trailer through those areas? You may be given 30 minutes or less to evacuate so know how to load your horses in the trailer before you get into an emergency situation, and have a large enough trailer for all your horses. Don’t get stuck having to choose who to take and who to leave behind.
If you have to leave your animals behind you can leave feeding and medication instructions for the fire department. They will try to feed and water your animals and protect your property. Make sure your animals have identification such as id tags, microchips, tattoos or ear tags, and that you have pictures. If you have to release them do not leave a halter on which could get caught on something.
One of the many useful things we learned in the lab portion of the class was to make an emergency rope halter to lead horses to safety. This can be done from any piece of rope making a figure 8 knot over a bight. Then bring the
knot over the horse’s head along the bridle path and under the throatlatch. Next using the long end of the rope make a loop and pass it through the opening of the first knot. Continue to expand that loop as you pull it through, putting it over the horse’s muzzle. Now you have an emergency halter.
We also practiced approaching 3 unbridled horses in the arena for capture, containment, and handling. Using the orange plastic fencing you see at construction sites, each person stood ten to twelve feet from each other as “fence posts” and slowly approached the horses as a living fence. We were able to completely confine one horse in a separate section from the other two. While they were nervous about the fence, they didn’t try to run through us. The key was moving slowly and making reassuring noises.
After one class and lab with Ms. Gonzales I can tell you I would now handle a fire completely differently than I did before. I hope I never have to experience that again, but insurance can replace things, not people or pets.