Coop design - FIRE!

Suddenly, unexpectedly, the flames were bright and strong! The smoke rose strongly, high, high into the sky.

YET... incredibly, all the chickens survived. :yesss:

In the middle of a disaster, what was done right that led to their survival?

GRAPHIC WARNING: Some photos and some text below may be too graphic for some people. But all the hens survived and have gotten well.


When I first saw the smoke over the trees, I thought a neighbor was burning leaves. A few seconds later I realized the leaf burning must have gotten out of hand, because there was too much smoke. I quickly went where I could see better. Behind the bushes I saw flames and, just barely, the roof of a structure. I thought - oh no! The neighbor's yard shed is on fire! My daughter called 911. But the fire trucks were already on the way, I could hear them. I stood in the street and waved them in. A moment later, after the firemen had gone in, I went to see if any help was needed. I discovered, to my horror, that it had been a chicken coop burning. I sadly looked for little bodies on the floor, but couldn't see any. I eventually found out that all the chickens had survived.

How did the chickens survive such a hot fire? In this article, I first go over the events as best as I can reconstruct them. Then - I ponder how I can use what I learned to improve the safety of my own coop.


Here is my best reconstruction of the events:

1) The neighbors had taken a year to carefully and lovingly build their chicken coop and runs. In spite of careful wiring... in spite of a tip-proof heater that wasn't supposed to tip over even with active hens... in spite of that same tip-proof heater that was supposed to shut off immediately if accidentally tipped ... a fire started. Obviously, once the fire started, the dry wooden walls and wood chip bedding in the coop helped it along.

2) The coop had doors open to two different runs. When the fire started, two roosters and two hens raced for the long run (maybe 12 feet long and six feet wide), and four other hens raced outside to the shorter run (maybe about 6 feet long and 6 feet wide).

3) The two roosters and two hens in the long run were not hurt at all by the fire. They were able to stand sufficiently far so that they were not affected by the heat nor by the rising smoke. They were a bit upset by all the action, but they were seen pecking and acting normal (inside their broken pen) within 30 minutes after the firemen left. They were accepted into a new home before the end of the day.

4) The four hens who, in the first moments, chose to go through the door to the shorter run were not able to escape as far. And to make things worse, as seen in the first picture above, the flames went shooting strongly sideways out the door - unfortunately right in the direction of the four hens.

5) The neighbor, who went out just before the firemen arrived, later said she "saw her four hens smoking" when they were exposed to the flames coming out of the coop door into the shorter run. She was, naturally, completely horrified. These were pets, not just egg-layers. But all the doors to the pens were centrally located near the shed - in the flames. My neighbor tried to make a hole in the chicken wire for them to escape, but the heat and the good, sturdy construction prevented her from doing so. How agonizing for her!

6) The firemen arrived. The first one leaped from the truck even before it came to a complete stop, and went running to the back yard. Within mere moments the firemen turned the hose in the chicken's direction. I can’t believe how quickly they had the water going. Later, the neighbor told me the water just panicked the four hens and made them fly up closer to the flames. So one of the firemen, with his solid boots and strength, kicked holes in the chicken wire. The four hens quickly escaped and ran into the bushes. Soon, the fire was out.

7) The neighbors, their daughter, my daughter and I helped to catch the loose chickens again. My neighbor sorted them - the four who were not hurt were temporarily put back in the (broken) pen, and the four who were burned were placed in a pet carrier. The black hen had the worst burn (on her neck).

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8) My neighbor decided to take what she thought were her very seriously burnt hens immediately to the vet for euthanasia. I asked her if she was sure they needed to be euthanized, as they didn’t look quite that bad to me, but this is when she said “Yes, they’re badly hurt! I saw them all, they were smoking!” She added “Look, the black one is bleeding!” and "Look, this one's eye is burnt." It was easier for me to be objective, since they were not my hens. I saw a single drop of blood/fluid oozing from her neck. It didn't seem that bad to me. I saw one eye closed. That meant eyelid damage, not necessarily eye damage. Yet I told myself they were her hens and it was her decision to make. Events were moving so quickly I didn't have time to react.

Then - her daughter reported that the first vet said no, they did not handle chickens - even for emergency euthanasia.

9) I couldn't believe a vet would refuse emergency euthanasia to a hurt animal of any kind. But this refusal gave me time. While my neighbor's daughter was trying to contact a second vet to try to make euthanasia arrangements, I was still looking in the pet carrier and studying the hens. They looked panicked. They looked hurt. But they did not act like they were dying.

I did see a large patch of black, charred feathers on one of the red hens. I saw other charred patches of feathers. Yes, indeed they had been "smoking" and feathers had obviously burned and charred to the point of forming a black, hard mat in places. But... suddenly I was thinking of ducks in winter. I have seen wild ducks happily carrying on with their lives in temperatures hovering around zero degrees Farenheit. Wouldn't feathers - which insulated so well against cold - also insulate against heat? I told my neighbor I figured that feathers were excellent insulators, and that perhaps only the surface of the feathers had burned. The burnt patches did not seem to go all the way to the skin. I added that perhaps the inner feathers had protected the hens. After all, hens have a thick covering of feathers! I thought the hens could be saved, I told her. She considered that, but then said “I have no coop any more! My runs are broken. I can’t care for them!”

10) I thought (and I had to think quickly). I have my own coop, but it has ducks in it. I do have an extra pen. I wouldn't mind helping the hens - I'd like for them to survive. But I don’t want to add hens to my flock. I also don't want to pay for euthanasia if they take a turn for the worse. I know that can get quickly expensive.

I communicated with the neighbor. We quickly came to an agreement. I would nurse the hens. If they needed euthanasia, she would take them (which she had originally planned to do anyway). If they improved, she would look for a permanent home for the hens. I would simply help out for a few weeks. We both agreed!

I have Aloe-Heal at home, I told her, which works miracles on burns and wounds. She agreed to let me try that with the hens. Then she promptly drove to the feed store to buy more Aloe-Heal, just to be sure that I wouldn’t run out. She is that kind of awesome lady.

11) I drove home with four hens to care for - mostly based on my reading of their body language that they were not hurt enough to wish to die, and also based on a guess about the insulating properties of feathers. I wondered if I had guessed right.

Careful nursing revealed the following injuries.

a) First I cut away the surface charred feathers. I discovered a layer of perfectly good down. The skin below the down was not hurt at all! It wasn't even reddened. When I saw that, I knew I had been right about the insulating qualities of feathers, and I knew the hens really might have a chance! None of the hens were hurt in the body. Their feathers had protected them. That meant that most of their bodies were un-burnt. Hurrah! I knew they did have a chance!

b) They all had some burns on their heads and necks, because head feathers are quite thin and had not protected them as well as their body feathers. The burns were limited to one side of the head (or neck, for the black one). The combs had some surface burns, too. Would they heal? On the first day, the burns just looked like reddish patches, so it didn't seem so bad.

The black hen had the worst neck injury, but her head was mostly fine. She must have put her head down so her head was largely spared.

c) One of the red hens had the side of her face clearly burned, including beak, eyelid, comb and ear patch. The eyelid was clearly singed and painful, but the eye itself underneath looked normal. I hoped the eyelid was not burned all the way and would heal, but I knew I would have to keep a careful eye on this bird. She also had quite a swollen leg on one side - presumably from the heat. I know nothing about trying to help burned scaly legs.

d) The other red hen was mostly fine, except for a badly burnt ear patch, but she also had a swollen, presumably burned leg.

e) The fourth hen, a small grey bird, had been molting. Her head was very swollen and her quills stuck straight out. I worried about her. I wondered how the quills would have handled the heat, and I worried that her head had not been protected by even one layer of feathers. However, her body feathers were only slightly charred, so I thought she, too, would have a chance. She might have hidden behind the other, larger hens?


I used Farnham Aloe-Heal. I put some on every two hours to all burned areas the first couple of days (heads, combs, neck, legs). Then I slowly cut back until eventually I put it on twice a day. I also put triple antibiotic ointment in the affected eyes and surrounding areas, since the Aloe-Heal doesn’t work well around eyes. Of course, when the Aloe-Heal dried, it became goopy, and where it covered feathers it did make a mess. Because of the goop factor, I also used triple antibiotic ointment near nostrils. I washed the areas once each day, and this helped keep down the amount of goop, though the hens didn't like it. I'm sure they were sore.

DAY 1 The first day after the fire, they were very quiet and clearly in shock, but they ate and drank a little bit. I had a "heat" lamp with just a regular 100 watt light bulb. They huddled under the heat, and at night huddled together in the pet carrier.

DAY 3 The picture below shows the red hen with the injured face at three days. Scabs have formed, the whitish/greenish stuff is dried up Aloe-Heal. She looks a mess and looks worse than day 1, but I know this is a normal part of the healing process. She doesn’t open her eye much because the eyelid has a hard scab on it. She has been eating and drinking more. She feels a bit light when carried - but not overly so.


The black hen has formed a good scab on her neck, which is remaining somewhat soft due to the Aloe-Heal. This permits the skin below to reform faster. She is now eating normally.


The little grey hen’s feather quills are growing (great!) - but so far each day she has pushed a little bit of black ash out the ends of her quills… The larger red hen looks to be healing except for her still quite swollen leg.

The neighbor brings by some protein for them - she says they like cooked chicken! The little canibals do love it and eat and eat. It seems to help - they look much stronger the next day. And the neighbor has brought enough cooked chicken for several days. That will really help them!

My neighbor tells me she has found a home for the hens. When they are healed, they will join the flock of another neighbor who also came to help with the fire. and who is willing to add them to his flock.

DAY 5: By the fifth day the three large hens actively race away from me when I needed to treat them - a good sign! They are getting strong. They are acting more like normal hens each day. Today the swelling went down on the legs of the two red hens. Those two hens were limping a bit. I’m not surprised - I’ve had this happen in my own life. When I broke my arm, the day the swelling went down the arm hurt a lot more. The legs still seem to have some burn damage. I'll just have to trust their bodies will know how to heal that. All I can do is just put a bit of Aloe-Heal on the outside of those scaly legs.

The red hen with the singed eyelid, I notice today, has a closed nostril on that side. A little gentle investigation with a probe to lift the side of the nostril reveals a thin “skin” of ash and soot. This turns out to be easy to drag gently out of the nostril. After that, she seemed to breathe more freely on that side (the other side was just fine all along). The little grey hen is now pushing out feathers rather than burned char, and her head is beginning to look covered in feathers rather than just quills. Her head is less swollen. She is improving. She still looks quite ragged - but, I realize, the fire happened when she was in the middle of a molt! She is clearly doing much better.

DAY 7 Now it's been a bit over a week. The three larger hens are again easier to catch - I think treating them hurts them less now, so they are more willing to be caught. The smaller red hen has lost the scab on her eyelid. The eyelid is fine, and she can open her eye wide again. Her beady eye is clearly fine - she stares at me just to prove it. She is clearly very happy to be able to use both eyes normally. Just as obviously, she can't wait to get rid of the remaining scabs on her face. She just hates them.

The black one is also feeling much better - she even gave me a chicken hug this morning, leaning into me. It is amazing to me how fast they are healing! And the larger red hen is almost fully healed. Just a few more days for that leg and she will be just fine.


UPDATE on the scaly legs: After about a week the swelling began to go down. By the end of the second week, the swelling was gone. Then the scaly burned legs became discolored and got "cracks" in them!
At first this really scared me. :eek:

But it turns out that this was just the skin peeling. By the end of the third week, pieces of old scaly skin were falling off and under them was new, just-a-bit scaly skin, as on young hens. As the old skin falls off (in places), there is more new skin appearing. Phew! They are doing just fine!


First, the hens survived because of the well-built runs attached to the coop - spatious runs separate from the coop to which they did have access. This separation enabled them to escape from the fire in the first moments after it started.

Second, while the coop itself had a floor of comfortable and warm wood-chips (before the fire), the runs had floors of sand/dirt. This relatively cool, non-flamable sand and dirt kept the flames away and provided a refuge for the chickens.

Third, except for when the flames came out the door, the fire mostly made a strong column of rising flames. Because runs were airy (not covered except in chicken wire), the heat and smoke were free to rise up. This means the smoke went up into the sky and none of the chickens suffered from smoke inhalation. I think the column of fire was rising so briskly it even drew in cool air from the surrounding area, keeping the hens somewhat less hot than they might have otherwise been. They did suffer from radiant heat generated by the flames, but they did not breathe in overheated air. I’m sure this was a critical factor which helped them survive.

It was in large part because they were breathing easily in their carrier after the fire that I thought they had a chance to survive. When asked, the neighbor confirmed she thought they had not breathed smoke. This gave me the confidence to try to help them.

Fourth, the hens also survived because my neighbor and I were willing to communicate and cooperate with each other. Without that, the hens would not have survived either. Cooperation among neighbors is not a feature of coop design, but it is an important part of having a flock. Neither one of us could handle all the responsibility of trying to nurse the hurt hens, but both of us were willing to share that responsibility so the birds could be helped.


- My current setup is much like my neighbor’s was. I have a coop house with three attached runs, two longer and one short. My short run is perhaps only four or five feet long. I am going to make it longer, so that my birds can gain more distance from the coop if that becomes necessary.
- My runs also have a sandy floor, so this will help keep my birds safe.

- Some of my runs have tarps covering them. It keeps the rain away, but these tarps could also trap smoke and heat if my coop were to burn. I will reposition the coverings at the very end of the run, further from the coop, leaving an open space around the coop. This will insure that, if the worse were to happen, the smoke and flames could rise straight up in the air.


Three weeks ago a year-old light fixture from a reputable manufacturer blew up with a bright light and loud bang in my own hallway in my house, with smoke and a strong burned smell quickly spreading. It left a large sooty mark on the ceiling. I think the only reason a fire did not start was that the circuit breaker tripped. Otherwise, I might have ended up like those hens, running outside while my house burned. So I know first hand that electrical accidents happen in spite of being most careful. For my neighbor, her circuit breaker didn’t prevent her coop fire. I need to learn more about circuit breakers.

My neighbor was home and she didn’t even know her coop was burning. That is tragic! I don’t want that to happen to me.

I am researching smoke-detectors and heat-detectors. I think that when I wire my coop for electricity, I want to try to install one. I know there is a lot of dust, and that could be an issue. Still, it might be worth a try.

I also wonder - when I update my coop - if it would be possible to create a non-flamable corner (closest to the house) where the electricity could come into the coop and where any lights or heaters could be located?

What about BIOSECURITY when helping a neighbor's chickens?

For those of you who wondered if I was risking my flock just to four hens - yes, even in the middle of the emergency I thought about biosecurity. Before the hens left my neighbor’s house, I asked her how long she had them. They had all been on her property - within a few houses from mine - for at least three months (the age of the youngest ones). She said that they had all been healthy before the fire. She had lost a single hen to disease, but it was at least three months ago, and the rest of the flock was completely healthy, including the babies she had purchased then. So instead of having to isolate the hens, this information allowed me to feel safe going back and forth between the two flocks.


The little grey hen seemed to stand somewhat apart from the three larger, younger hens even on the first day. She looked lonely, even though she was with them. So as I went to take care of my ducks, I just brought her along. I set her down with the ducks to see what would happen while I fed them. The change in that small hen was odd, immediate, and amazing to see. She stood straighter (I have Indian Runner ducks who also stand straight). She approached the ducks (well, she tried, but at first they ran away from her). I was puzzled and amazed. I didn’t believe what I was seeing. She seemed - happy?! She had never lived with ducks or seen ducks before. Yet I could see she was trying to fit in and to establish her position with them.

The next day - her second meeting with ducks - I free-ranged the ducks for a bit, and the little grey hen with them. I gently guided them all in the direction of the pen that held the three hens. She saw the hens that she knew and stood by the fence for a moment (completely ignored by the three hens). Then, she noticed the ducks were walking away. She took one last quick look at the hens and took off running after the ducks. She seemed to be saying “Wait, wait, I’m coming with you!” She had clearly and firmly decided to join the duck flock.

Now she follows the ducks everywhere. She shows no desire at all to return to the company of the three hens. Last night I offered her a visit with the three hens to make sure. She chased them away from food and refused to let them into the night shelter. She clearly did not want their company, nor anything to do with them. On the other hand, she is making friends with certain ducks and particularly seeks their company. When free-ranging she will get closer to certain ones and will follow them. She enjoys hanging out with the whole flock, and the ducks are now accepting her as one of them. It was her decision, not mine!

Well, I guess I can make room for that one little extra "duck." Only the three bigger hens will go to a new house when they are fully healed.
About author
Duck Hill
I have owned a flock of runner ducks for more than four years. I have gained experience taking care of sick ducks, including tube-feeding ducks and ducklings, taking care of various injuries, and nursing them - sometimes for extended periods of time (see West Nile virus article). I have hatched and raised various incubator hatched ducklings. I have more limited experience with hens. I have also educated myself by reading extensively about ducks.

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Well written and an easy read. Very informative and thoughtful over how the coop might have aided the chicken's survival - ideas I will now take into account with the coop I am currently building!
Yes, I absolutely loved your article. Not only does it give a solid presentation of all that happened during a fire and the aftermath, It also has a great "awwww" factor. Good luck with your new "Duck".
Fire scares most of us ... and we do all we can to protect ourselves from its' dangers. We do what we can to protect our birds, too, but we don't know what actually works unless put to the test ... and nobody wants that! This well-written article documents the coop and run features that saved a neighbor's flock from a live-roasting. The pictures are frightening, but the results are wonderful. There are clear notes on what worked, both in preventing deaths and healing injuries, but there are also some thoughtful comments on how to improve on existing structures. All in all, a really great article ... Nicely Done ... Thank You!


Coop fires are so scary, glad this one had a nice ending. Good of you to share what you learned from it too!
I read your article out loud. For all who could hear, Cheers filled the room! Awful experience with such a positive outcome and great insight for future considerations. Thank for your verbal observations! How about a 3 sided cinder block cubby (3 blocks tall, each wall) for electric stuff? Like a mini bar-be-que? What about an old barbeque with those lift tops? Good idea, I got planning to do.

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