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Steps you can take now to prevent combine fires later

Prevention and preparation are key to protect your equipment from burning

Can anything instil more fear in farmers than the smell or sight of smoke while combining. The potential for loss in terms of equipment, crop and even life because of a fire during harvest operations is huge.

Unfortunately, fires while harvesting are not uncommon. This past fall, the fire departments in the County of Forty Mile in southeastern Alberta responded to seven combine fires in a single 10-day stretch.

“And those were just the fires we attended to,” says regional fire chief Dustin McGarry. He attributes the large numbers of fires to an unusually high fuel load (some of the best crops the area has ever seen), high daily temperatures and low humidity. McGarry says conditions were so dangerous, farmers were advised to stop every hour to check for hotspots on all equipment and to clean any buildup of straw and dust.

It was even recommended that farmers set up a truck carrying at least 150 gallons of water, a pump and a fire nozzle and have it follow the combine around the field to put out spot fires as they appeared.

McGarry says a lot of farmers complied with these recommendations.

You might think that older, poorly maintained combines would be most prone to fires. In fact, four of the seven combine fires in the County of Forty Mile were in newer machines: 2015 and later.

McGarry points out newer combines have a lot more electrics and electronics that are susceptible to the infiltration of fine dust. They have more hydraulic lines too, and plastics have replaced many panels which used to be metal.

Plus, new engines and exhaust systems run hotter to mitigate pollution.

Carle.org, which includes the Carle Illinois College of Medicine, the world’s first engineering-based medical school, released a “Field and Combine Fire” fact sheet. Among the points it makes are:

  • Newer combines have a greater risk than older ones for fire. Newer combines have a much larger volume of synthetic materials such as shields, panels and fuel tanks that will burn once the fire is ignited.
  • As combines have gotten bigger in general, with larger processing areas and storage capacity, the operator is less likely to be able to see the engine area.
  • A fire can start 15 to 30 minutes before you ever notice it in the field, so be alert.

These factors increase the possibility of fire and of more intense fires. So, if a new combine is not the answer to reducing combine fire risk, what is?

Now is the time

Why are we even talking about combine fires when harvest is finished, and we are in the middle of winter? The University of Minnesota extension service says there are two keys to protecting your harvest operations from fire: prevention and preparation. Both need to start now. Waiting for next harvest season is too late.

Major combine maintenance is best done in the off-season instead of rushing a repair job in the middle of harvest. Replace worn belts and bearings before they fail completely and possibly cause a fire. Check electrical wiring for wear. Check hoses and fittings for any indications of wear or leaks. Consider booking a combine inspection through your local dealer if you are not mechanically inclined enough to do your own complete inspection in the off-season.

Fire extinguishers are essential on combines and need to be checked and recharged on a regular basis. Make sure they are large enough for fighting a combine fire.

Also, if you do not have a portable tank, pump and fire nozzle system which can be moved from field to field as you harvest, now is the time to consider options such as a tank in the back of a service truck, a tank mounted on a trailer, or a firefighting system adapted to a high clearance sprayer. No matter the system you choose, you also need to have the manpower to be able to move the water to the scene of the fire, and they also need to know how to operate the equipment when they get there.

Fire insurance

An insurance update may be the most important action you take this winter.

Does your insurance cover the losses you would incur if you had a catastrophic fire?

Does it cover the replacement cost of your combine if destroyed? Does it cover crop loss from a fire?

Does it cover a neighbour’s equipment or a rental combine if you have help finishing up your harvest?

If you lose the use of your combine, does your insurance pay for the full cost of a rental combine to allow you to continue harvesting? (Many insurance policies have a maximum daily rental rate for a certain number of days.)

Does your insurance cover your GPS guidance system? (In many policies a moveable GPS system must be covered by its own policy and is not included in the combine or tractor policy.)

Does your insurance cover fire department charges for responding to a fire on your farm?

What, if any, are requirements for fire protection for your insurance to be valid (number and size of extinguishers, for example)?

Do you know the claim process should you have a fire?

What happens to your coverage after a fire?

This past fall an Alberta farmer who did not want to be identified had two fires just days apart on a brand new combine. Insurance covered the repairs after the first fire with no question. But he ran into problems after the second fire with the insurance company questioning his fire prevention practices and his not having a water truck out in the field at the time of the second fire. Fighting with an insurance company after fighting a fire is not something you need.

Your fire response plan

How do you get help if you have a combine fire? Of course, the first action should be a call to 911. But who makes that call? Does everyone on your harvest crew carry a cell phone? Does everyone involved in harvest know what they should do if smoke or fire is spotted? Does everyone know the legal land location for the field you are working in so they can provide accurate directions to responders? Are your fields identifiable by signage and are access approaches marked so responders can find the way into a field?

Assuming that everyone is as knowledgeable as you about fire response is not enough. You need a clearly defined fire response plan.

Neighbourhood assistance is often the best option for fighting a fire, given that the response time by a fire department to a combine fire in a rural area is likely to be considerable. Do you have a way to contact neighbours who can provide firefighting assistance? While watching for smoke might have worked a generation ago when farms were much smaller, today your nearest neighbour may be harvesting miles away from you. Consider setting up a community alert system whereby a text or message can be instantly sent out to all neighbours alerting them that you need immediate assistance. Talk to neighbours this winter about joining something like a WhatsApp group for emergency contact.

Down Under

If you are worried about Canada’s combine fire risk, consider Australia. According to Australia farmers organization NSW Farmers, seven per cent of Austalian combines catch fire in an average year, and 10 per cent will cause significant machinery and crop damage, plus the risk of personal injury.

The risk of combine fires is so high Australia has a Harvest Code of Practice (opens as a PDF) to help prevent combine fires. This code of practice grew out of the Rural Fires Act of 1997 which mandated farmers have a duty to prevent fires from starting and spreading. Included in the code of practice is:

  • Stop harvest when the local actual (not forecast) Grassland Fire Danger Index exceeds 35.
  • Before harvest, establish a minimum four-metre fire break around the boundary of crops or paddocks to be reaped.
  • Keep crop residues on machines to a minimum, particularly engines, exhausts or brakes.
  • Regularly maintain machinery before and during harvest, particularly wearing parts and bearing.
  • Carry the prescribed equipment — such as water, extinguisher and a shovel — and have immediate access to a UHF CB radio or mobile phone.
  • Keep a farm firefighting unit in the paddock being harvested.

Now, Australian researchers are looking to adapt technology employed in motor sports and car racing that protects drivers from fires following a crash. Things that are being looked at include: heat shield paints, fire-retardant coatings, exhaust jackets and insulative ceramic skins on exhausts which insulate as well as reduce dust adhesion.

As well, work is being done on automated fire extinguishing systems.

Back in North America, Carle says “As a general rule of thumb, a fire doubles in size every 30 seconds. So, if you have a fire that’s three feet by three feet, it can consume an entire acre in less than 10 minutes. In drought conditions, like we’ve seen recently, it could spread even faster.”

Australia has seen grassland fires consume 85 acres within half an hour of starting, and 500 acres in an hour.

With your current equipment and preparedness, how fast can you fight back?


The Grain Harvesting Guide

The South Australian Country Fire Service and the South Australian Farmers Federation have created a harvest guide which Australian farmers use to determine when harvest operations should be suspended because the risk of fire is too high. Their approach correlates relative humidity and temperature to find the allowable maximum wind speed based on a grassland fire index of 35, the rating at which Australia says farmers should cease harvest operations.

Canadian farmers should consider stopping harvesting for a few hours when the combination of high temperatures, low humidity and wind makes the risk of fires extreme. We can use the same harvest guide as Australia to determine when the risk of fire is just too high to continue harvest operations. Copy the following chart below and put it in the combines now so it is there to reference during next year’s harvest.

Using the grain harvesting guide — an example:

Step 1.
You will need to measure the current temperature, humidity and wind speed on your property. For wind speeds, you should average this reading out over 10 minutes. For humidity, round the number down.

Step 2.
Using the measurements you’ve just taken, find the maximum recommended wind speed in the table on the next page. For example, a temperature of 40 C and 15 per cent relative humidity equals 26 kph.

Step 3.
Compare this result with the wind speed you recorded. If the wind speed you’ve recorded is equal to or greater than the number in the table, it is recommended you do not harvest. Re-assess weather conditions later.

In the example below, if the wind speed on your property is 26 kph or more, you should not harvest.

Is the wind speed you recorded equal to or greater than the wind speed shown above? If yes, it is recommended you do not harvest. Check weather conditions later.

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