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Fire danger high this harvest

Jeff Caldwell 08/14/2012 @ 10:58am Multimedia Editor for Agriculture.com and Successful Farming magazine.

One of the most potentially dangerous challenges of this drought year lies ahead in harvest. With all that dry plant matter in the field, all it takes is one spark or overheated part to ignite a field ablaze.

There are ways you can lower the potential for fires in your fields, though. Most important is simply staying aware of your surroundings, both natural and mechanical. It starts with the former, says Iowa State University Extension ag engineer Mark Hanna.

"Although air temperatures were warm and relative humidity was low during much of early harvest, most fires occurred on days with wind speeds averaging 15 mph and occasional gusts of 25 to 30 mph," he says. "This suggests that not only should combine operators be careful when field conditions are dry and air conditions are warm, they should be extra vigilant during windy periods."

Though these conditions are most conducive to field fires igniting, there are ways to help minimize the chances your machine will start a blaze that Hanna says can "cause millions of dollars in property damage." He recommends these tips to prevent combine fires in the field:

  • Keep the machine clean, particularly around the engine and engine compartment. Use a high pressure washer or compressed air to remove caked-on oil, grease and crop residue.
  • Check coolant and oil levels daily.
  • Check the pressurized oil supply line to the turbocharger for wear areas that rub and may start an oil leak.
  • Frequently blow leaves, chaff and plant material from the engine area with compressed air or a portable leaf blower. Remove plant materials wrapped on or near bearings, belts or other moving parts.
  • Examine exhaust or hot bearing surfaces. Repair leaking fuel or oil hoses, fittings or metal lines immediately.
  • Inspect and clean ledges or recessed areas near fuel tanks and lines.

"In case of fire, carry a cell phone to call the fire department. Two ABC-type fire extinguishers are recommended: a smaller 10-pound unit in the cab and a larger 20-pound extinguisher at ground level on the combine," Hanna adds. "Invert and shake the extinguishers once or twice a season to ensure machine vibrations don’t compact the powder inside. A shovel to throw dirt can also help."

And, one fact that's easy to overlook in a year like this is the timeframe for the typical crop field fire. Fire sources can smolder for as long as 30 minutes before they ignite into visible flames. So, don't let your guard completely down at any point when machinery is in or around a dry field during harvest.

"Fires may start from plant materials that have smoldered unnoticed for 15 to 30 minutes or more. The ignition source for field fires may have been the earlier passing of a truck, tractor or combine," Hanna says. "Flames aren’t apparent until additional oxygen is supplied, perhaps by a gust of wind. Harvest crews may want to discuss a plan for emergency tillage of a fire break should that option become advisable. Keep in mind that personal safety is more important than property loss."

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