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12 tips for field fire safety

Combine fires are serious business. Take these 12 tips to heart — they’re from a farmer who learned the hard way


I hope you’ve never had the misfortune to have a fire and that you never will. But chances are that you’ve met and battled this evil thing.

My sons and I have been on the local fire department for a few years. We’ve been lucky not to have had to battle any fatal fires, but we’ve eaten our share of smoke. However, that doesn’t mean I couldn’t start a fire of my own.

Our Massey 750 combine has a tendency to gather dust and straw around the exhaust manifold. Most days I clean it off, sometimes several times during the day if it’s dusty. It seems worse when we’re combining lentils, because of the fine dust.

Last fall when we were straight cutting some wheat I got a whiff of smoke. Not a problem. I’d just cleaned off the manifold, so it was likely just left over dust. Besides, I was going up a big hill and I couldn’t stop halfway up. When I got to the top I looked behind. What was that orange thing in the field?

Flames. And they were about five feet high!

I shut the combine down and opened the engine compartment. Sure enough, a spark by the exhaust manifold had found some straw at the front of the motor and started a fire. Luckily I had a water fire extinguisher on board and was able to get the combine out within a minute.

I called my son Ben and he rushed over. Then I called the fire department; they were at least 20 minutes away. We called a couple of neighbours — the one that was home came over with a tractor and blade right away.

We almost had the fire out with our fire extinguishers. But “almost out” is not “out.”

Flames spread through the standing wheat crop and into the neighbour’s pasture.

By the time the fire was finally out we were surrounded by generous neighbours with equipment and water trucks and firemen and equipment from two towns. Ben lost 30 acres of wheat and about 80 acres of the neighbour’s pasture was burnt off. Some lentil stubble (about two inches high) on the far side of the pasture stopped the fire. The combine was saved and no one was hurt.

This can happen to anyone at any time. Here are a few thoughts on fire prevention and fire fighting.

Fire preparation

1. Have phone numbers on hand. If you don’t have a cell phone, make sure you know where to find the nearest phone. Have emergency numbers and numbers for neighbours on hand (including their cell phone numbers).

2. Land location. A written list of your land locations will help you tell emergency crews how to get to your fire. Make sure you give the emergency operator details about any special hazards they might encounter such as blocked roads, vehicles on fire, injured people, buildings or other property that needs protection.

3. Have your fire extinguishers ready and charged. We carry a 20-litre water extinguisher that you charge with compressed air and a 10-pound ABC extinguisher on each combine. Luckily my water extinguisher was charged when I needed it, but although my dry ABC extinguisher showed a charge, it was not working. If it had been serviced and checked properly it might have saved Ben’s field.

4. Keep a water tank and pump handy when you’re harvesting. We have a trailer with a 1,000 gallon tank and a pump that we use to fill the sprayer and put out fires. However, it wasn’t much use to us — it was 20 miles from the scene. We were in too much of a hurry to harvest to bother bringing it to the field. Big mistake.

5. Check your fire insurance coverage. Make sure you’re covered for the value of your machinery plus fire department charges. Loss of use on machinery is nice as well. Most fire departments charge for fire calls, and the bill can easily go over $10,000. Many policies only have coverage for only $1,000 or $3,000. In our case, fire insurance (less the deductible) covered most of the cost of the fire department and the lost crop. But it didn’t cover our extra work, like working down ridges of soil that had been bladed up to stop the fire. Also, our insurance didn’t cover the damage to our neighbour’s fence. Since the fire was accidental, our neighbour was subject to his own insurance and deductible.

If you have a fire

6. Stay calm. Most fire fighter deaths are due to heart problems. Fires get us excited and we run around in overdrive. Remember, unless there is a life at stake, the crops, machinery, vehicles or buildings that will be lost can be replaced.

7. Assess if you can get the fire out yourself. If you can do it safely — do so. If you have any doubt call the fire department. Now. Most rural volunteer departments take five minutes or more to get to the hall and get going. Then they have to drive to the fire with heavily loaded fire trucks. Figure 10 minutes plus one minute for every mile they have to travel to get to your fire. If you’re 15 miles from town then you’ll likely have a 20 to 25 minute wait.

8. Protect other property. Get machinery out of the path of the fire. And don’t depend on the wind to keep blowing from the same direction. It can change in a hurry. If there are buildings in the path of the fire, make sure the occupants know about the fire and are prepared to evacuate.

9. Be careful! Fires can be deceptive as well as fatal. A grass fire moving uphill triples or quadruples its speed, especially if it’s helped by a wind. This caused the death of a firefighter from a neighbouring town. Be careful with equipment fires too. Those nice air shocks that hold your doors open can explode and sent the shaft right through you. This happened to a Montreal firefighter when a hood shock exploded. The shaft went through his fire suit, his leg and out the other side of his fire suit, cauterizing the wound on the way through. And don’t forget about the toxic fumes plastics give off when they burn.

After the fire

10. Keep watch. Pastures and trees can smoulder for days. After the fire crew watered everything down and watched it for hours, they left our fire to us. When a breeze blew up at about four in the morning, a blackened grove of trees lit up like they were decorated with Christmas lights. Sparks were smouldering in the dead branches and the sod on the ground.

11. Check machinery for damage. We were lucky — our combine didn’t need any repairs. I thought the front engine seal was cooked and leaking, but it was still usable. Check for obvious burning, but also for heat damaged parts such as belts and wiring where the damage may not be so obvious.

12. Don’t forget to say thank you. Make sure you thank all of the neighbours and other who help out. People who drop everything to help you — including their own harvest work — deserve a big thank you. Make sure you return the favour when your neighbours need help. †

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