Don’t Let Your Harvest Go Up in Smoke!

With only 5% of corn acres harvested as grain complete and 2% of soybeans harvested (compared to last year’s 20%) as of the most recent (October 3, 2011) USDA Wisconsin Crop Progress Report, those running combines, trucks and other harvest equipment are in for a super busy October. It’s important to use the few extra moments and rainy days you do have to take extra steps to reduce the risk of a catastrophic combine fire. The risk is higher when you’re going all out to get the crop out of the field before the first snow flies, especially if you don’t take the time to keep your machine clean and take care of all the required maintenance.

A few years ago when I was an agricultural safety specialist in Minnesota’s Agricultural Engineering Department, my research team and I looked at more than 8,000 fires that had occurred over more than a decade. We dug into the details of 620 of these fires that happened from 1998-2000 and learned some important facts.

October is by far the highest risk month, based largely on the sheer number of hours spent in the field, often with little time to pay full attention to maintenance tasks. Mechanical failures like worn out bearings, slipping belts, etc. were the biggest cause followed by electrical system failure (arcing, sparking, overheating), and simple lack of maintenance. More than three-quarters (76.7%) of fires started in the engine area. While “crop residue” was most often the first material to catch on fire, IF the fire burned into a fuel, oil, or hydraulic line, losses were often catastrophic ranging from tens of thousands of dollars to full losses.

Keep your machine as clean as possible. Depending on the design of the machine and the condition of the crop, you will rapidly learn where crop material will tend to accumulate. Manually remove material and use an air compressor (and safety glasses) to blow off dust, chaff and other material as often as possible. If you notice any type of flickering of lights/instruments, unusual noises (from failing beartings or other mechanical components), or even small leaks in fuel or oil lines, diagnose and fix the problem immediately.

If your combine does catch on fire, pull immediately away from the standing crop and get the engine shut down as soon as you can safely do so. A running engine will continue to “fan” the fire and will often continue to pump liquid fuel into a burning area if you’ve ruptured an oil or diesel line. Get help onto the site immediately by calling 911. Provide the dispatcher with your exact location, staying on the line if necessary so that your location can be detected. Let the fire department dispatcher know you have a farm machinery fire so they can send the right equipment. Do not try to fight the fire with an extinguisher unless you are able to approach it safely.

Every grain combine should be equipped with two ABC dry chemical fire extinguishers – the larger, the better, but they should be AT LEAST 10-pounds with an Underwriters Laboratories (UL) approval. One can be mounted in the cab, and one in an area where you can reach it from the ground without having to climb back into the machine. Check the pressure gauge on all extinguishers often. DO NOT try and test the extinguisher by “releasing” some of the chemical. It will effectively unseal the unit and requiring it to be recharged by a local fire department or other facility with the correct equipment. Many fire departments will also provide advice and will take a look at your extinguishers if you have any doubts or need other fire protection advice.

Finally, check with your insurance agent to make sure all your equipment is appropriately covered. A combine fire can easily cost $150,000 or more. The additional “downtime” can run thousands of dollars a day depending on crop prices, the capacity of your machinery, and the weather conditions. Take time to think about and reduce your risk before it’s too late!

John Shutske,

ANRE Program Director (and Professor, Biological Systems Engineering)

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