OMAHA (DTN) -- Even if a wildfire is contained to just machinery and doesn't spread into a field -- or worse yet a small town like this weekend in Missouri (see https://www.dtnpf.com/…) -- these fires can endanger lives, as well as cost a lot of money and valuable time for farmers.
This year it seems an even greater number of combine fires have been happening during the harvest season. While higher-than-normal temperatures at times, extensive drought, windy days and low relative humidity are all contributing factors, fire risks have increased for other reasons, too.
South Dakota State University Extension has noted in one of its releases that "many steel combine components have been replaced with combustible components; combines are larger and process more biomass; chain and belt drives have been converted to hydrostatic systems, which increase the risk of oil leaks and combustible hoses that can sustain a fire; (and) the wide-scale use of powered sensors and controls systems which may provide the spark to ignite dust and chaff." (See https://extension.sdstate.edu/…)
SDSU stressed if there are dry conditions and wind speeds close to 30 miles per hour and higher, fires are inevitable. Producers are encouraged to delay harvest until evening when winds decrease or else wait for precipitation. "Park the combine during periods of high risk," SDSU stated. "Remember your safety comes first."
The National Corn Growers Association has given tips in the past on safety procedures to reduce the risk of combine or machinery fires. (See https://www.dtnpf.com/…)
This included encouraging farmers to recognize and be careful around combustible material, such as leaves, stalks, husks, dust, oil and fuel that come into constant contact with potential sources of ignition from farm equipment exhaust, bearings and electrical wiring.
Here are some of the tips to reduce fire risk:
-- Farm equipment fires can still occur despite the most vigilant care. It is important that each machine have a working, fully charged fire extinguisher as well as with you in your vehicle (A-B-C, 5- or 10-pound).
Iowa State University Extension recommended having a smaller 10-lb extinguisher in the cab, and a larger 20-lb one at ground level on the ground attached to equipment. ISU added it can also be beneficial to keep a pressurized water extinguisher (class A) on equipment, since they can help extinguish fires, but also cool hot surfaces and serve as a water source to clean hands or rinse off after a fuel or chemical spill.
-- Keep farm equipment clean, such as with a pressure washer, and particularly the engine compartment since the majority of all machinery fires start there. ISU added that using a leaf blower or compressed air can keep machinery clean in the field and suggested doing it at night because in the morning the dew or overnight rain can make dirt and residue harder to remove. However, some farmers on Twitter have questioned if battery leaf blowers are safe to use, since they can build up electricity and can shock the user.
-- Check engine fluid levels at the start of the day, particularly coolant and oil levels in all equipment that will be used. Look for any possible leaking fuel or oil hoses, fittings, or metal lines. Should a leak be found, repair it right away.
-- Check the exhaust system as surfaces containing flammable material can ignite fires.
-- An arcing electrical wire can generate extremely high temperatures in farm machinery. Replace any worn or malfunctioning components.
-- Worn bearings can reach high temperatures, which can cause any rubber belt coming in contact with this intense heat to ignite. Look for worn bearings, belts, and chains frequently and replace.
TIPS FROM ISU
ISU, in blogs written by its fields agronomists Joshua Michel and Terry Basol, added some of the following tips:
-- Inspect and clean ledges or recessed areas near fuel tanks and lines.
-- Prior to fueling, turn the combine off and wait 15 minutes to reduce the risk of a spill volatilizing and igniting.
-- Invert and shake fire extinguishers once or twice a season to ensure machine vibrations don't compact the powder inside. Class A water extinguishers need to be kept in a heated area during winter or they will freeze.
-- Keep a shovel on the combine to throw dirt if needed.
WHAT TO DO IF FIRE BREAKS OUT
ISU and NCGA both emphasized most important is to escape the machinery and call for help.
-- Should a fire break out while a machine is being operated, shut off the engine, grab the extinguisher and exit the vehicle immediately. Be a safe distance from the vehicle at all times if a fire does occur. Call 911. Attack with fire extinguishers if it is safe to do so. Try to fight from the "black," the area already burned. Attacking a fire from areas with combustibles (e.g. dry corn stalks) is much riskier. Use the flexible hose on the extinguisher to spray the base of any visible flames continuously to cool the fire and prevent a re-flash until help arrives.
-- Always stay upwind of a fire to minimize the risk of exposure from smoke, heat, and possible flames (due to wind gusts).
-- Be mindful of non-ag equipment vehicles that may be in the fields. UTVs or passenger vehicles often sit closer to the ground and can be more prone to causing field fires. Residue buildup in UTV engine compartments can be a source of starting a fire.
-- Newer diesel engines often go through a regeneration process to burn soot from their DPF (diesel particulate filter). During this process, exhaust temperatures can reach extremely high levels, often in excess of 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit. Keep equipment clean and do not park or work in an area where the exhaust is exiting the vehicle near combustible material. This helps ensure equipment in a regeneration state does not ignite a fire.
Finally, ISU's agronomist team emphasized the importance of a plan:
-- Create lists of the 911 addresses for each of your field locations prior to harvest and have them easily accessible to family and farm employees. Many fire departments have GPS equipment onboard their apparatus to assist in directing them to incidents. When an incident is called in with a 911 address, dispatch can more readily identify the incident location and relay this information to apparatus drivers. Precious time can be saved when apparatus can be dispatched immediately with GPS guidance rather than having to doublecheck maps and directions.
If you're finishing combining but are still dealing with baling, you can check out some tips on how to prevent baler fires at: https://www.dtnpf.com/….
CREATING A FIREBREAK USING TILLAGE
The following are suggestions ISU made about creating a firebreak using tillage:
-- Making a tillage pass along the outside edge of a field (especially a corn field that can provide ample fuel for a fire because of high amounts of residue) has been a proven preemptive strategy to help prevent fires from spreading into a field.
-- If safe to do so, making a firebreak with a tillage pass can help stop an active, out-of-control fire from spreading. Create an area that won't fuel the fire, so the fire will burn itself out.
-- A good rule of thumb is to create a fire break that is two to three times as wide as the nearest surface vegetation or plant residue is in height (example; 3-foot-tall brome grass along a field edge = 6-9 foot tillage width). Keep in mind that depending on wind speed and gusts, the radiant heat and embers from a fire can "reach out" sometimes twice as far as they normally would be able to. Consequently, a fire break may need to be considerably wide (up to 30-plus feet) to help ensure proper fire containment.
DTN Staff Reporter Russ Quinn contributed to this story.
Elaine Shein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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