Risk of Combine Fires High, Take Precautionary Measures


Dry field conditions, high temperatures and wind gusts of 30 to 35 miles per hour are leading to an increased threat of field fires across most of the state.

On Wednesday the National Weather Service issued a Red Flag Warning for much of Nebraska: "Dry and breezy conditions this afternoon could lead to extreme fire behavior. Fires will start quickly, spread furiously, and burn intensely."

Conditions are expected to be similar today and possibly into tomorrow.

On Tuesday the village of Stapleton was evacuated due to a large fire that started in a soybean field and quickly burned out of control, according to an Oct. 5 North Platte Telegraph story. The National Weather Service at North Platte reported sustained winds of 30 miles per hour and gusts up to 41 in the area contributing to this and other fires.

In a short time Tuesday afternoon, volunteer firemen were called to three field fires in an area in eastern Nebraska between Waverly, Greenwood and Ashland, said Dave Morgan, UNL farm safety specialist.

This is likely typical of what the rest of the state is seeing. The State Fire Marshal’s office reported major fires in northwest and central Nebraska and was aware of smaller fires in other areas. Widespread rain forecast for this weekend will lower the threat, but also stall harvest efforts.

Morgan recommends several steps producers can take to lower the risk of field fires and the resulting damage to combines and yield. These include:

– Keep equipment clean and in good repair. When done for the day, producers should take time to clean machinery thoroughly with an air compressor, power washer or even a broom to dislodge any crop residue or chaff from the combine.

– Fix any fuel, hydraulic or oil leaks. When it’s this windy, vegetative matter breaks up into really fine material that readily accumulates on oil and fuel leaks, Morgan said. This creates a source of solid and liquid fuel. From there, it doesn’t take much to start the fire -- a dry bearing or a slipping belt can quickly heat up or spark.

– Check fluid levels and carefully refill, being careful not to spill any oil or fuel on the equipment. But don’t overfill fluid reservoirs. With high temperatures in the mid-80s, oil expands and may "burp" out the vent, creating another fuel source for fire.

– Carry at least one, preferably two, fully charged 10 pound ABC fire extinguishers on all equipment. (Be sure to have fire extinguishers inspected annually and refilled as necessary.)

"We recommend having a couple extra air pressure water extinguishers ready on the combine or in the pickup," Morgan said.

A dry chemical extinguisher will exclude air from the flame, but it doesn’t cool the source of the fire, leaving hot, smoldering chaff, crop residue and dirt that could start another fire. A pressurized water extinguisher, with a tablespoon of dish soap added to improve spray, will cool and saturate the source.

"A five-gallon air pressured water extinguisher would weigh about 40 pounds and should be manageable. We recommend keeping one in a nearby pickup and on the combine, if possible," Morgan said.

If a field fire starts, call 911 first and then try to extinguish it. Aim the extinguisher nozzle at the base of the fire, sweeping if from side to side.

Under these unusually dry conditions, even with a clean combine, fires are going to occur and can quickly get out of hand, Morgan said.

Personal safety is always paramount, Morgan reminded growers.

One piece of good news, though, is "the fire danger should ease dramatically as we enter this weekend," said Al Dutcher, extension state climatologist. "A strong upper air trough is projected to move into the central U.S. by Oct. 7 and generate the potential for our most significant statewide moisture event in at least 30 days."

Weather models are indicating widespread precipitation of 1 or more inches for Nebraska this weekend, with some areas of central Nebraska possibly seeing 3 or more inches through October.

Models also indicate that a line of severe thunderstorms may develop the afternoon of Oct. 7 in central Nebraska and Oct. 8 in eastern Nebraska.

"If the weather models are correct, the fire danger would be significantly reduced or eliminated for much of next week," Dutcher said. "Dry weather is then forecast to return to the region for much of next week and should allow producers the opportunity to head back to combine activities after fields dry enough to tolerate the weight of heavy machinery."

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