View Full Version : Putting out a barn fire 1800s

06-22-2016, 10:07 PM
In my story, the villain sets fire to the barn. The hero just got the harvest in, hay in the loft, grain spread out on the barn floor to dry. It rained earlier in the day.

1. Judging by what I've read in this forum, once a fire starts in a barn, the barn is pretty much toast. True even for a barn that's only been built a couple months before, yes?
2. If that's true, what could the hero do? It's damp outside from the rain, would that be enough to stop the fire from spreading to the grass outside or is there something the hero could do to keep it from spreading?

P.S. I love this forum. Learned more by searching "fire" here than I did from Google. (And I'm now totally paranoid. :eek: ) Google had info for house fires in the city, or modern firefighting. I did find a youtube video called "How to put out a fire in the 1800s" and thought I was home free. Turned out to be a video of a man doing something with a horde of little kids clustered around watching him. Don't know what he actually did, just heard him say "And that's how people put out fires in the 1800s." Yeah. Thanks.

AW Admin
06-22-2016, 10:29 PM
Depending on where and local situations, there might be a cistern on the property specifically for fires.

If the bad guy didn't use an accelerant, it might be possible to put out the fire. Especially with hay just brought in, and grain not drying.

Neighbors nearby come right away; smothering the fire by knocking down walls then wetting it was pretty common.

The barn attached to the house I grew up in was built in stages, with an actual hay loft at one point being added, and when we repaired the roof we could tell that there had been one or more fires in the past, at least one from before the hayloft was added, and one later (we could tell from the way the boards were cut and the nails).

06-22-2016, 10:36 PM
I've actually burned down a dilapidated barn that was a leaning danger. I used lighter fluid on the main verticals along two walls where the wood was very dry and let it soak in before lighting it. I did it in the rain as per the fire marshal's request. I was surprised how long it really took to get out of control. There was about 45 minutes when if there were probably 2 people helping with buckets and a reliable well, it might have been manageable. Now it was empty, not full of hay. That probably would have made a tremendous difference in the time it took to really take off.

06-22-2016, 11:36 PM
New hay doesn't burn as well in real life as in the movies. Barns don't either. Where is the barn? In town, there might even be a fire service and pumper truck. In the country, there was a pond or river, and often a well near the house and barn.

But the real question is, what do you need for the story? If you need the hero to save it, recent rains, accessible water and a few friendly neighbors and you have it. If it needs to violently burn out of control and explode in mayhem, make it extremely dry, have the well run dry and store some dynamite in the loft.


06-22-2016, 11:58 PM
Thank you all! This is very encouraging. I would just as soon have the hero put out the fire as it was just starting (smothering it with a heavy quilt, if that's plausible). The barn is in the country, on a claim in the 1850s, no close neighbors and the stream is a few minutes' walk.

I had thought that I was stuck with the barn burning down, so it's nice to find out that it's not unavoidable.

06-23-2016, 01:00 AM
There's a lot of factors involved here. Starting point is the big difference in hay technique from 1810 to 1890. In 1810, you're looking at hand cut, stacked hay that often sat in the fields before being brought to the barn. By 1890, you've got cutting implements hauled by a team of horses. Baling still was pretty much in the future. Hay would be cut and stacked in the field, maybe tarped, and brought to the barn later on. It would then be tossed loose into the loft. This provided a more efficient work flow and also reduced the risk of fires from decomposing hay. There would be a substantial amount of loose hay in the barn from previous years which would be very dry, but the hay being tossed in the loft would be drier then when it was cut. Storage requirements were much higher because the hay cannot be compacted as much as with bales.

Next question is where is this happening. That's going to determine what equipment might be available for both haying and fighting the fire.

Barns burn well because they are big empty spaces with lots of available oxygen. As a fire builds, it starts drawing in cold, oxygen rich air and sending hot smoke. This is the dynamic that gets a fire really going. A fire needs fuel, but even more important is oxygen, lots and lots of oxygen. Once a fire starts going with this dynamic, there's not much you're going to do with a fire unless you can flow gallons and gallons of water. This is what you're seeing in the brush fires in California.

Way to stop it is to find the fire early, before it gets too large.

With a stream a few minutes walk away, you're going to have to rely on a stock tank at the barn. That's not going to be a whole lot. However, sand and gravel can be very effective at putting out a fire. This is going to have to be a very small fire.

Would the base of your barn have been build with sod? If so, that's a good source of sand and also gives you a better structure to work with.

You're going to need to keep this a small fire. But small fires scared the crap out of people back then. They knew how quickly it could become a big fire.

Best of luck,

Jim Clark-Dawe

Katharine Tree
06-23-2016, 06:38 AM
No comments on the big picture, but as a nice detail, nearly every household back then had leather fire-buckets on hand. I'm sure they would have used other buckets and pails, but leather ones especially for firestopping are a nice side-note.

Raking out the burning portion of hay and beating the flames out would have been a better approach in a barn, though. Maybe with wet gunnysacks. (I just re-read the Little House books ... )

06-23-2016, 11:09 AM
New hay doesn't burn as well in real life as in the movies..... If it needs to violently burn out of control and explode in mayhem, make it extremely dry, have the well run dry and store some dynamite in the loft.

JeffIn the 1850's hay wasn't baled. It was stored loose inside a barn or as stacks. Loose hay burns much easier than baled.

Now that we know it's set in the 1850's it is also worth noting Dynamite was still yet to be invented. Kegs of black powder needed to be stored in a dry area

06-23-2016, 08:24 PM
I was thinking the villain would have a lantern that he would throw in the barn before running away like the scurrilous coward that he is. The barn was constructed only a few months before the fire, so there wouldn't be any old hay in it.

06-23-2016, 09:17 PM
One thing that may help you since it's not much later than your period is to read up on the Burning of the Shenandoah Valley in the fall of 1864.

06-23-2016, 09:21 PM
The time of year here is incredibly important, as well as when the barn was "finished." Further, size and purpose are important. Which leads us to the question of where is this story set. Barns are used in markedly different ways in Texas than Oregon.

But if the barn is being used to keep animals or do milking, as soon as the barn is able to be used, the hay from the stacks would be moved in. Barns used to keep animals become littered with hay within days of initial use.

However, not all barns are used to keep animals. Further, the barns originally used in Kansas tended to be small and used a lot of sod. Meanwhile, barns in the Northeast tend to be fairly large and all wood construction.

In the Northeast, barns tended to be built during either the winter or mud season. It was work done when a farmer had free time. Wood would be stockpiled for the barn and sit around for a while. Framing would be done over time, and is very different back then from how a house would be framed. The framing could be done flat on the ground, but could also be done while the framing was vertical. Getting the framing done would be when the "barn raising" tended to occur. The outer walls, and roof, could be done later. Interior structure, like stalls would be added even later. It might take several years to complete a barn. It depends upon how big a priority it is. And that brings us back to where is this barn located?

Depending upon the size of the lantern, depending upon the internal construction of the barn, depending upon where the lantern hits, depending upon what the floor is made out of (wood or dirt), depending upon humidity and wind, and depending upon how luck plays out, it could burn down the barn or be something easily put out.

Jim Clark-Dawe

06-30-2016, 07:57 AM
Thank you! I appreciate all this information. Sounds like it would be possible to have a barn that could survive a fire, if the hero were quick enough to race in and put it out, even if the barn were:
- built a few months before the harvest
- on an isolated claim in Oregon in the 1850s
- only used for hay/grain (which seems to be the case for many of the barns from that era in the region)
- with a dirt floor
- with fresh loose hay in the loft
- with grain drying on the floor
- with a quick-thinking hero, a bucket, a water trough, and a thick quilt (for smothering)

So long as I can write the story that way and not have someone throw their kindle across the room because it's so implausible, then I'm happy :)

And CWatts, I'll look up the Shenandoah fire too.

Thank you all!

06-30-2016, 05:35 PM
Grain is a term for several things, such as wheat, rye, and oats. You need to define which one you're talking about. Then you have at least a couple of stages in the process before you get to the "grain" that is ground. I don't know much about grain, as it isn't common where I live, but I'm also wondering about drying it on a dirt floor.

Many barns back then had a "horse blanket" for keeping an older horse warm in cold weather. Another possibility would be a buggy blanket, kept in a wagon or buggy to keep people warm. Either of those would be a good possibility, as well as burlap sacks. Put the blanket on the fire to start smothering it, and then toss water on top of the blanket. Let the blanket start smoldering and smoking.

The fear of fire was very pronounced among a lot of people during the time period you're talking about. For a farmer or rancher, loss of the barn and the crops within it, would be close to a disaster.

Jim Clark-Dawe