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Prevent the tragedy of combine fire

Take precautions to prevent combine fires this harvest season, and be sure to talk to your insurance agent to see what is covered.

Curt Arens, Sarah McNaughtonand 1 more

August 31, 2023

6 Min Read
combine in field
ON FIRE: There are several hundred combine fires across the country during harvesttime each year, and each one is a tragedy. But there are ways to prevent those fires from happening by understanding why they ignite to begin with.Mindy Ward

It has almost been a year since the tragedy. One October day last fall, many Missouri farmers were hard at work bringing in crops as the temperatures were quite hot for an autumn day.

In a soybean field near the town of Wooldridge in central Missouri, the bearings on one combine overheated and ignited a fire.

The 2022 harvest season was dry and windy — a problematic mix. Winds pushed the flames toward thick, dry vegetation surrounding the field. With every gust, the fire continued to move and engulf everything in its path, including the town.

Terrible day

Ultimately, nearly 3,500 acres burned, according to the Cooper County Fire Protection District. In the small community of Wooldridge, 25 buildings burned or were damaged. Still, firefighters saved the Wooldridge Baptist Church building, post office and the Wooldridge Community Club.

Cooper County Fire Protection District Assistant Chief Russell Schmidt told media that day that no one was killed, although several people were treated for burns. One person was taken to the hospital with injuries that were not life-threatening.

Today, this rural community is still struggling to recover, according to members of the Wooldridge Community Club. While much of the debris was removed from home lots, many have not started rebuilding.

As the potential for the same type of weather pattern sets up this fall in many regions across the country, farmers should stay vigilant around machinery — particularly combines — during harvest. It is a matter of protecting their equipment, crops, themselves and their neighbors.

When conditions like this are prevalent, what can a farmer do to mitigate the fire risk and still get the crop harvested? It may be impractical to stay out of the field completely on days when the winds are blowing and humidity is low, but many farmers last fall took those weather conditions into consideration.

Fire extinguishers and leaf blowers

With more than 600 combine fires reported annually across the country, combines should always have regularly updated fire extinguishers on board during harvest season. That is a given.

One long range study looking at nearly 9,000 combine fires from 1984 through 2000 found that the engine area is by far the location of origin most often during combine fires. (See graphic.)

Fire prevention revolves around minimizing the risk of machines catching fire, so tragedies like Wooldridge are much less likely. North Dakota State University Extension experts have a few tips on how to prevent these fires from starting in the first place:

Keep it clean. Keeping a high standard of combine cleanliness is the best way to prevent fires, especially around the engine, turbo charger and exhaust system.

Exhaust components and turbo chargers can reach more than 1,000 degrees F, while surface temperatures can reach 900 degrees. With crop residue being able to ignite at 500 degrees and above, keeping combines clean is the single most important thing to keeping fires at bay.

Chaff and debris will build up on hot vehicle components while they are operated in fields.

These areas must be cleaned daily, which can be done with an air compressor or a leaf blower. The handy thing about a leaf blower is that it can easily be brought out to the field and kept in the cab for convenience.

Watch where you park it. Park vehicles in places with minimal vegetation as the hot exhaust could start a fire, as well as hot machinery parked on dry grass or vegetation.

Get repairs done. Be sure to repair any leaks or damaged pieces of machinery, including leaks in the fuel system, damaged electrical wiring, or worn-out exhaust systems.

Wait to refuel. Let machines cool off for at least 15 minutes before refueling, and never refuel while an engine is running.

Watch combustible crops. Crops such as sunflowers come with an especially high risk of fire as stems are reduced to a lightweight dust that can build up on the combine. Combine exhaust systems run at high enough temperatures to ignite the sunflower dust.

Chaff and dust can accumulate around bearings, belts and other moving parts, as well as underneath tractor and combine cabs. Dust and trash will become more and more combustible as they are let to dry.

Power wash it. Consider power washing equipment to remove grease and oil, which can allow a fire to spread rapidly. Removing this excess grease and oil can aid in improving machine efficiency while keeping equipment cool.

In case of fire. If a fire does break out, turn off the machinery and exit immediately. Call 911 or emergency services before trying to extinguish it yourself. Keep two fire extinguishers on the combine, one in the cab and one that can be accessed from the ground. A fire extinguisher should also be found in grain hauling equipment.

What about insurance?

During last year’s flurry of wildfires and crop fires during harvest season in his area of northeast Nebraska, Ryan Loecker, location manager for Town and Country Insurance and north region leader, GTA Insurance Group, worked with farmer clients who were affected.

“My first recommendation would be to go in and talk with your insurance agent and make sure you carry the proper coverage in case of a combine or harvest fire,” he says.

“In the case of a fire, your combine would be covered under your regular farm property insurance. So would the headers,” Loecker adds. “But the weird thing is that under your regular crop insurance, which covers drought, wind, flood and hail, the crop that would be destroyed around a combine would not be covered if the fire was caused by the combine. If the fire was caused naturally by lightning, for instance, and it started in a neighboring CRP tract and then spread into your crop field, that would be covered, but a fire that comes from equipment is not.”

However, Loecker says that if you carry hail insurance on your crops, then fire caused by any source, including a combine, would be covered for your burned crop acres under those circumstances.

An insurance example

“As an example, let’s say you are out combining in your own field, and the combine starts on fire and burns up 5 acres of the field,” Loecker says. “Because it is not naturally occurring, the burned acres would not be covered. If you hired someone to custom combine, and their combine started on fire and burned some of your crops, their liability insurance would probably pick that up.”

The farm blanket insurance can also be useful in these cases. “In many cases, combines have toolboxes these days with thousands of dollars of tools; and in the cab, there may be add on equipment like GPS, yield monitors and other technology that could be covered under the farm blanket,” Loecker says.

While fires are a part of farming, preventing those fires in the combine takes vigilance from producers in making sure their harvest machinery is clean and free of debris and residue that could ignite.

Beyond that, make sure you have a conversation with your insurance agent to tailor the coverage of your equipment, crops and property to your needs and risks.

Read more about:

Farm Safety

About the Author(s)

Curt Arens

Editor, Nebraska Farmer

Curt Arens began writing about Nebraska’s farm families when he was in high school. Before joining Farm Progress as a field editor in April 2010, he had worked as a freelance farm writer for 27 years, first for newspapers and then for farm magazines, including Nebraska Farmer.

His real full-time career, however, during that same period was farming his family’s fourth generation land in northeast Nebraska. He also operated his Christmas tree farm and grew black oil sunflowers for wild birdseed. Curt continues to raise corn, soybeans and alfalfa and runs a cow-calf herd.

Curt and his wife Donna have four children, Lauren, Taylor, Zachary and Benjamin. They are active in their church and St. Rose School in Crofton, where Donna teaches and their children attend classes.

Previously, the 1986 University of Nebraska animal science graduate wrote a weekly rural life column, developed a farm radio program and wrote books about farm direct marketing and farmers markets. He received media honors from the Nebraska Forest Service, Center for Rural Affairs and Northeast Nebraska Experimental Farm Association.

He wrote about the spiritual side of farming in his 2008 book, “Down to Earth: Celebrating a Blessed Life on the Land,” garnering a Catholic Press Association award.

Sarah McNaughton

Editor, Dakota Farmer, Farm Progress

Sarah McNaughton of Bismarck, N.D., has been editor of Dakota Farmer since 2021. Before working at Farm Progress, she was an NDSU 4-H Extension agent in Cass County, N.D. Prior to that, she was a farm and ranch reporter at KFGO Radio in Fargo.

McNaughton is a graduate of North Dakota State University, with a bachelor’s degree in ag communications and a master’s in Extension education and youth development.

She is involved in agriculture in both her professional and personal life, as a member of North Dakota Agri-Women, Agriculture Communicators Network Sigma Alpha Professional Agriculture Sorority Alumni and Professional Women in Agri-business. As a life-long 4-H’er, she is a regular volunteer for North Dakota 4-H programs and events.

In her free time, she is an avid backpacker and hiker, and can be found most summer weekends at rodeos around the Midwest.

Mindy Ward

Editor, Missouri Ruralist

Mindy resides on a small farm just outside of Holstein, Mo, about 80 miles southwest of St. Louis.

After graduating from the University of Missouri-Columbia with a bachelor’s degree in agricultural journalism, she worked briefly at a public relations firm in Kansas City. Her husband’s career led the couple north to Minnesota.

There, she reported on large-scale production of corn, soybeans, sugar beets, and dairy, as well as, biofuels for The Land. After 10 years, the couple returned to Missouri and she began covering agriculture in the Show-Me State.

“In all my 15 years of writing about agriculture, I have found some of the most progressive thinkers are farmers,” she says. “They are constantly searching for ways to do more with less, improve their land and leave their legacy to the next generation.”

Mindy and her husband, Stacy, together with their daughters, Elisa and Cassidy, operate Showtime Farms in southern Warren County. The family spends a great deal of time caring for and showing Dorset, Oxford and crossbred sheep.

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