Farmers are always thankful for good neighbours who won’t hesitate to help when you’re in trouble.
Jason LeBlanc is certainly one. Last September, he had a huge scare when a combine driven by his teenaged daughter, Gracie, caught fire while she was harvesting canola at the family’s farm near Estevan, Sask.
Gracie escaped the blaze unscathed but with only seconds to spare.
“I remember everyone telling me there was smoke in the field behind my combine,” says Gracie, who was 13 at the time. “I grabbed my fire extinguisher because we always have one on the combine, and when I got out, I could see there were flames all up the side already.”
Her dad recalls the wind was blowing so hard that day “it just took everything. Within 30 seconds, the combine was engulfed in fire. It was that quick.”
LeBlanc says Gracie was, understandably, very upset after such a close call.
“She was scared and started crying a little bit. I told her we don’t have time to cry right now — we’ve got a field on fire, too,” he says. “We went and got shovels and started putting out little fires in the field.”
LeBlanc dialed 911 and he also put out a call for help through a WhatsApp group chat message sent to other farmers in the area.
“Within 10, 15 minutes … we had discs and water trucks and people that just kept coming, and we got her out,” he says. “I live in a very good community and people help each other here.”
LeBlanc says the emergency group chat for farmers started a couple of years ago. “We have a bunch of our neighbours on there, it must be up to 50,” he says. “That was probably the first time I needed it … and it was good to have it. It was a little eye-opener for everybody.”
Not surprisingly, LeBlanc urges other farmers to consider using a messaging app like WhatsApp, which enables one text to reach many, especially during times like harvest when the risk of equipment or field fires is heightened.
“It really is beneficial, and I advise lots of people to do that,” LeBlanc says. He also recommends having discs standing by in the field during harvesting to help contain fires if they spread to the crop.
“It’s one thing to burn a combine, but if it’s going to cost standing crop, good luck. You’re in trouble,” he says. “Mine was burning into stubble, so I was OK.”
LeBlanc is still unsure what caused the combine to catch fire that day. He initially thought it was a bearing issue but after ruling that out, he suspects it might have been caused by a ruptured fuel or hydraulic line.
As for Gracie, LeBlanc says it wasn’t long before his daughter was back on the proverbial horse — she was combining the following day and continued for the rest of harvest.
“After that, we went together and looked at some combines, and we bought another one at an auction sale. She helped me pick it out.”
Know the risks
Unfortunately, combine fires aren’t all that unusual. That’s especially true when conditions are very hot and dry, like it was during harvest in many parts of the Prairies last year — conditions many farmers could face again this year.
Rob Gobeil, a safety and health specialist with the Canadian Agricultural Safety Association, says it’s important for farm workers to be aware of fire risks when operating combines and other heavy machinery during harvest.
He says fire extinguishers are always a critical safety element, particularly when it comes to saving lives.
“You only have roughly 30 seconds to put that fire out with any fire extinguisher, and the best thing to do is use it as a means of escape,” Gobeil says. “If there are flames in your pathway, use it for that and get the heck out of there.”
Gobeil stresses it’s essential any on-board fire extinguisher on farm machinery works properly and people are trained in how to use it. He says fire extinguishers should never be loose but mounted in combine cabs where they’re easily accessible.
Gobeil says as a safe practice, it’s a good idea to have a second fire extinguisher mounted elsewhere on the combine that is accessible from the ground.
He recommends fire extinguishers be serviced once a year and that they be checked regularly by farm workers to ensure they’re in proper working order.
“I would recommend to physically remove the extinguisher, inspect it visually, rotate it vertically and turn it upside down a couple of times just to make sure the product inside is rotating and not frozen,” Gobeil says.
Clean out crop debris
A common cause of combine fires is the buildup of chaff or crop debris around bearings, belts, or other moving parts, which can get extremely hot. That’s why combines should be inspected frequently for any crop residue, dust, dirt or excess lubricant that needs to be cleaned out.
Gobeil, who says newer combines may be more at risk of catching fire since they’re made with more synthetic materials and less metal than older models, points out debris can be removed quickly by having a leaf blower or compressed air gun handy in a farm truck.
“That way, if you need to blow out an area inside the engine bay, for example, you can do that and not have to run all the way back to the farmyard to grab some equipment,” he says.
Preventive maintenance is also key to preventing combine fires. Operators should check to see if there are any leaky fuel or oil lines as well as any bearings or drives that require lubrication. Additionally, they should look for exposed wires that appear to be worn or damaged.
It’s also not a bad idea to check oil and coolant levels often, since running low on either of those could cause the combine to heat up. Another recommendation is before refuelling the combine, allow the engine to cool to lower the risk of spilled fuel on a hot machine.