A week ago, as farmers were harvesting in drier-than-normal conditions, the Greene County sheriff’s office at Jefferson in west-central Iowa received a report of a soybean field on fire south of town. The fire department responded and was able to extinguish the blaze with minimal damage to the crop. They caught it early.
Due to conditions being hotter and dryer than usual this year, the risk of machinery working in fields catching fire is greater this fall. There were several reports of combines catching fire this past week in central Iowa. Don Van Houweling, president of Van Wall Equipment, a group of John Deere dealerships, says this fall is the worst he remembers for the number of combine fires. And we’re only in mid-October. There’s more harvesting to be done.
Increased fire risk inside and out
“We recommend to our farmers that they have a portable leaf blower and, at the end of every day, blow out the areas of their combine where crop leaf material and pieces of stalks accumulate,” Van Houweling says. “Focus on the engine compartment especially, and the area around the engine. There are also other places inside and outside the combine that need to be checked often and cleaned of debris at least at the end of each day. Then you are good to go back to start harvesting safely the next day.”
The cleaning doesn’t take long, he says. “Maybe you want to clean your machine several times a day if you see crop residue building up.” He suggests using a leaf blower to clean the engine compartment and around areas such as the exhaust and places where debris tends to collect.
“It may seem like an endless procedure to do this every day or a couple times a day,” he notes. “But all it takes is a hot bearing to come in contact with a dry stalk or dry corn leaves to ignite a blaze.”
Iowa State University Extension offers tips on prevention:
- Keep your harvesting machinery clean by routinely removing leaves and plant materials.
- Check coolant and oil levels in the engine daily.
- Examine the exhaust and other hot surfaces.
- Repair damaged fuel or oil hoses, fittings, and metal lines immediately.
- Wait 15 minutes before refueling to cool down the machine and reduce the risk of a spill igniting.
Don’t forget respiratory protection
Farmers and employees are also reminded to use respiratory protection during harvest. This year’s harvest is dustier and dirtier than usual, especially with drought- and derecho-damaged corn in the field.
“While the weather is working in our favor this year for grain harvest, the crop is drying down quickly, and mold and dust are prolific,” says Charles Schwab, Iowa State University Extension farm safety specialist. “Dust and mold cause significant respiratory issues that range in symptoms from minor discomfort to more serious illnesses.”
Protecting yourself from exposure to respiratory hazards should be a priority anytime but especially when working with grain dust or potential molds. With the significant demand for NIOSH-approved N95 masks this year, many farmers have noted it is nearly impossible to find their typical respiratory protection for harvesting and handling grain.
Helpful resources available
Carolyn Sheridan, executive director of the Ag Health and Safety Alliance, and ISU Extension have helpful resources available, including a short video to discuss an alternative option to using disposable facemasks.
- Mask Up 4 Harvest
- Respiratory Protection Worksheet
- Respirator User Seal Check (Video)
- How to Protect Yourself From Farm Dust