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Only you can prevent combine firesOnly you can prevent combine fires

Farmers are urged to take precautions to prevent fires in fields in windy, dry harvest conditions

Rod Swoboda 1

October 28, 2015

4 Min Read

Strong winds, low humidity and lots of dry cornstalks and soybean crop residue are a recipe for field fires. It doesn't take much to start a fire, just the spark from an engine or an overheated bearing on a combine. Or a hot manifold on a combine engine where dirt and pieces of corn leaves or stalks have gathered. Local fire departments have fought fires in a number of fields around Iowa this fall.

Near Colo in Story County, a fire on October 19 rapidly spread across a field but the local fire department was able to put it out before it spread to a nearby house. Not everyone is so lucky. And more than the crop is lost. Sometimes the combine burns up.


Clarke McGrath, an Iowa State University Extension field agronomist at Harlan in western Iowa, was a volunteer firefighter with the Harlan Fire Department for many years. He and ISU Extension ag engineer Mark Hanna offer the following advice on preventing field fires and combine fires given continued dry and windy conditions.

Advice on preventing/managing field fires and combine fires
It's always difficult to forecast weather, but if dry field conditions persist, potential for combine and field fires this fall will continue to be a problem. "There have already been dozens of significant field fires around the state," said McGrath last week, "including a fire near Harlan that required five departments to contain. All it can take is a single high-temperature source in the engine area. Even an overheated bearing can ignite dry plant material."

During harvest periods with increased fire potential, fires cause millions of dollars in property damage in Iowa, including loss of machinery, crops and time. Injuries to farm workers and firefighters are also an unfortunate outcome in some instances, adds Hanna. "Modern, high-productivity combines are powerful machines, and power means heat. Fire cannot start without heat and fuel. You cannot remove the heat from the engine, hydraulics and other hardworking systems, but you can remove the fuel source by keeping your combine clean."

Prevention is a key to avoiding problems, here are some tips:

  • 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. Doing this one last time at night is better than in the morning when dew may make it harder to blow residues off.

  • 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. 

  • Prior to fueling, wait 15 minutes to reduce the risk of a spill volatilizing and igniting.

Hanna and McGrath also offer these three additional recommendations for farmers and other workers to keep in mind.

1)     In case of fire, call 911 first. And then attack it with fire extinguishers if it is safe to do so. Try to fight from the "black", the area already burned; attacking a fire from field areas with combustibles (stalks for example) is much riskier.

2)     A fire can double in size in less than a minute. Burning embers blown downwind can spread the fire well beyond the control of your fire extinguishers in just seconds. Two ABC-type fire extinguishers are recommended to have handy on your combine: a smaller 10-pound unit in the cab, and a larger 20-pound extinguisher mounted on the combine so you can reach it at ground level.

3)     Invert and shake the extinguishers once or twice during the harvesting season. That will ensure machine vibrations don't compact the powder inside. Having a shovel handy to throw dirt on a fire can also help.

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. Flames aren't apparent until additional oxygen is supplied, perhaps by a gust of wind. Harvest crews and neighbors may want to discuss a plan for emergency tillage of a fire break should that option become advisable. 

Final thought: Keep in mind that personal safety is more important than property loss. Good luck and stay safe as we enter the home stretch of harvest.

About the Author(s)

Rod Swoboda 1

Editor, Wallaces Farmer

Rod, who has been a member of the editorial staff of Wallaces Farmer magazine since 1976, was appointed editor of the magazine in April 2003. He is widely recognized around the state, especially for his articles on crop production and soil conservation topics, and has won several writing awards, in addition to honors from farm, commodity and conservation organizations.

"As only the tenth person to hold the position of Wallaces Farmer editor in the past 100 years, I take seriously my responsibility to provide readers with timely articles useful to them in their farming operations," Rod says.

Raised on a farm that is still owned and operated by his family, Rod enjoys writing and interviewing farmers and others involved in agriculture, as well as planning and editing the magazine. You can also find Rod at other Farm Progress Company activities where he has responsibilities associated with the magazine, including hosting the Farm Progress Show, Farm Progress Hay Expo and the Iowa Master Farmer program.

A University of Illinois grad with a Bachelors of Science degree in agriculture (ag journalism major), Rod joined Wallaces Farmer after working several years in Washington D.C. as a writer for Farm Business Incorporated.

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