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Harvest Fires Blaze On

With strong winds, high temperatures, and a lack of rainfall, farmers across the Corn Belt are finding themselves in flammable harvest conditions. 

Though some relief may be ahead, nearly all of Iowa has been in a red-flag zone (when existing weather conditions are ideal for fire combustion) at different times this week. Other states experiencing conditions ripe for harvest fires include Nebraska, large portions of Indiana, Kansas, Missouri, and Illinois.

On Monday, a fire that broke out in a cornfield just south of Chicago spread quickly to a nearby suburb threatening area residents' homes.

In central Iowa, sparks from a combine harvesting soybeans caught an entire field afire, resulting in over five fire trucks battling the harvest blaze. 

Do you have a harvest fire story to share?  Join the conversation here.  

“A mechanical malfunction or something overheating can start a fire, and if you don’t catch it right away, it’s hard for a small fire extinguisher that most farmers carry to put it out,” said Dennis Bowman, University of Illinois Commercial Agriculture Extension Educator.

A Milan, Minnesota farmer, Bergen Johnson, found himself hopping out of his cab before flames had spread from the front of the combine last week. His fire extinguisher was too close to the flames to be useful for him. Another Minnesota farmer, booked from the machinery talk forum, saw trouble with corn leaves in his 50 series Deere. By smelling the smoke, he put out the flames and smoldering three times with his gloved hand.

The state of Iowa saw fires ranging from a number of causes during the past two weeks — blown down power lines, friction from vehicles on fields, overheated stirators, and combine-related flames. In Missouri, WCMO from the community, saw flames coming from his combine and was able to put them out with dirt and a bottled drink. However, the bean fuzz fire did damage his wiring.

Bowman sees dry cornfields as particularly risky for combine fires. He considers crop dust and debris fire fuel and encourages closely watching the amount of buildup on equipment.

Robert Johnson, Indiana assistant state fire marshal, suggests these tips for avoiding fires during harvest season:

  • Make sure you have two fire extinguishers on board — one in the cab and another near ground level.
  • Check equipment daily before use, and focus on areas that may create heat or friction like the motor, PTO shafts, heating and cooling systems, etc.
  • Keep a cell phone on hand to be able to quickly call 9-1-1 should a fire occur.
  • Perform routine maintenance on equipment making sure to focus on bearings, seals, potential crop wrap points, and exhaust systems.

The National Weather Service forecasts rain across the Corn Belt this week, so relief may be on the way. 

Montana farmer (and Successful Farming magazine's All Around the Farm Idea of the Month winner) Brian Stahl came up with his own solution for fighting harvest fires after his cousin lost a brand-new combine to a fire in the field. By creating a fire-fighting station that attaches to his grain cart, Stahl is confident he'll have a better chance of getting ahead of the flames if an emergency strikes. Read more about his invention. 
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