The timely reminders offered by the return of National Farm Safety and Health week come just as many farmers begin full-fledged harvest – and though safety is always top-of-mind for many, drought has reinforced the importance of watching out for field and machinery fires.
Gail Deboy, a Purdue University Extension farm safety expert, says farmers can greatly reduce the risk of starting field fires with proper, regular maintenance of combines and other equipment used to harvest crops, and combines are especially vulnerable to fires because of the many hours they operate at a time and the dry crop fodder that can collect on them.
"During hot, dry weather, very dry fodder provides an excellent source to fuel a flame whenever a fire is ignited," he said.
This year's early planting resulted in early maturing of crops and unusually dry foliage during harvest. The exceptionally dry weather has led to numerous field fires in recent days, and many Indiana counties have imposed restrictions on burning.
Combine fires can easily spread to crops or remaining corn stover, rapidly igniting acres of farmland. Field fires can spread to nearby farm equipment, trees and buildings, including homes. Smoke from fires can create health problems for nearby residents and reduce visibility on roads.
Much of what causes machinery fires are overheated bearings and belts, exhaust components, clutches and brakes, electrical malfunctions and sparks caused by damaged or improperly adjusted components, and foreign material entering the processing path. Drive components clogged with crop material also can get hot enough to catch fire.
"As combines have become larger, they carry much larger quantities of fuel, lubricants and hydraulic oil," Deboy said. "Even small leaks in any of the systems using flammable liquids can result in a large fire in seconds."
Deboy suggested the following ways farmers can minimize the potential for combine and field fires and better react in the event of a fire:
* Perform regular maintenance on machinery. Keep combines clean, free of crop residue, and free of fuel and oil leaks. Regular inspection and maintenance of bearings, seals, potential crop wrap points and exhaust systems minimizes possible ignition points. Service equipment at the end of the day, rather than at the beginning, to detect overheating components or smoldering material that could burst into flames overnight.
* Maintain the electrical system. Keep a close eye on components that draw heavy electrical loads, such as starter motors, remote actuators, and heating and cooling systems. Consider fuses that blow regularly a warning sign that a circuit is overheating.
* Install portable fire extinguishers on every large piece of machinery. Extinguishers should be approved for fire types A, B and C and be of suitable size for the potential fires that could occur. They also should be inspected and serviced regularly.
* Keep a cell phone handy. Small field or machinery fires can be contained if emergency personnel can respond quickly.
About 700 combine fires occur nationally each year, each involving an ignition source, fuel and oxygen, Deboy said.
"By removing any one of those elements, a fire is prevented," he said. "As farmers examine combines or other agricultural machinery, they should consider the potential for each of those elements and where they are likely to come together to form a fire."
National Farm Safety and Health Week has been celebrated every year since 1944. It serves as a reminder that farming is a difficult, dangerous occupation. Just in 2010, there were 596 deaths and 70,000 disabling injuries attributed to agriculture, according to the National Education Center for Agricultural Safety.
More information on preventing combine fires is available from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's National Ag Safety Database at http://www.nasdonline.org/
Source: Purdue University Extension