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In a lot of ways, a combine in a corn or soybean field is just about a perfect recipe for a fire disaster: There's plenty of dry plant matter, a lot of highly combustible fluids and a ton of friction between already-hot moving machinery parts.
That's just in a normal year. Now, add to that the fact that the drought has sucked virtually all of the moisture out of this year's crops, and this year's fall harvest has "the potential to be explosive," farmers and firefighers says. Though it's important to take all the safety precautions you can before you start harvest, it's equally important to know what to do if a fire does start in one of your fields.
"If we don't get rain, all of my fire equipment is going in the trucks and they will be parked at the end of the fields just in case," says Todd Lewis, a Forest City, Iowa, farmer and firefighter.
Before you run
Before you even turn a wheel, there are things you can do to avoid fire potential. First, in each field, designate a single area where you'll conduct maintenance and refueling. Consider the landscape and any natural assets you may have at your disposal that could prevent a fire from spreading if one starts, says Brian O'Keefe, spokesman for the Des Moines, Iowa, Fire Department.
"Consider current and forecasted winds for fire fighting tactics. Natural barriers like roads, fence rows and creek or dry beds should be used as part of a defensive posture," O'Keefe says. "Wind spread and rising terrain will increase the velocity or speed of the fire."
Once you've got that location nailed down, take time for a comprehensive inspection of any machinery going in the field.
"Make sure dust is removed as often as possible, make sure there are no leaks in the exhaust systems and make sure there are no fuel leaks and that fuel lines have not been compromised," says Doug Richardson, Captain with the Norwalk, Iowa, Fire Department. "Take a close look at the wiring system, checking for exposed wiring or insulation deterioration."
It's a good idea to keep an air compressor close by in the field for blowing dust and chaff out of filters and engine compartments. Richardson says another more mobile tool for that job is a battery-powered cordless leafblower.
If sparks fly
Even if you do take every precaution possible, fire can still light up. If you do see flames, it's important to take a few steps to make it easier for emergency responders to get to the fire as quickly as possible. That means dialing 911 before taking any action to put out the fire yourself. First, that means positioning yourself and your machinery in a location where responders can have quick, easy access upon reaching the field.
"Be prepared to provide access points and any special hazards, like drainage tile, overhead wires, electrical fencing or livestock, to emergency responders," O'Keefe says.
Only once they've been notified can you -- if the fire is of a reasonable size -- take steps to put it out yourself. First, try using one of a recommended 2 fire extinguishers on a tractor or combine to extinguish the flames. Richardson recommends keeping one extinguisher inside the cab and one outside that can be reached from the ground.
"If a fire does occur, call 911 first, and then attempt to extinguish the fire by pulling the pin on the fire extinguisher and squeezing the handles together," he says. "Aim the nozzle at the base of the fire and sweep from side to side. Remember P.A.S.S., which stands for Pull, Aim, Squeeze, Sweep."
Plow a trap
But, if the fire's too large to put out with an extinguisher and you've got the machinery handy, you can also plow a fire break ahead of the blaze, effectively cutting off its fuel supply, the ample crop residue on the ground. But remember: Fire can move quickly and be very unpredictable, so keep your distance, O'Keefe advises.
"Plowing a fire break should be out in front of the moving fire. It will allow you to complete the maneuver with minimal visual obstruction while also not risking people or equipment," he says.
But, like about every other possible scenario when you're dealing with a field fire, plowing a fire barrier isn't easy and has its own risks, says Lewis. In some cases, you may even need to burn more acres in order to ultimately knock down a fire safely in a dry corn or soybean field.
"Don't plow in the active fire or really close to it. Corn stalks will suck up into radiator and if a sparks gets pulled in it will start your tractor on fire. Plowing a line can be dangerous if there is good wind behind it. Plus if you get ahead of the fire smoke more than likely will block out your vision or greatly reduce it and then your in the blind and that is not good," Lewis says. "Your best bet is get way ahead of the fire and cut a line directly across the field fence to fence. Even though you are going to burn more ground than running around it closely, you will be able to keep from becoming a casualty or worse a fatality"