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Keeping Your Equipment and Fields Fire Safe at Harvest

October 27, 2017

After a wet start in late September and early October, harvest is now progressing across the state. While getting the crop in is your first priority, don’t make safety your second.

Besides my job for Nebraska Extension, I have another job… that of a volunteer firefighter and EMT for almost 35 years. Each fall our calls increase, largely due to field fires during harvest.

By the Numbers

The National Ag Safety Database estimates that combine and tractor fires cause over $20 million in property losses annually in the US and millions more due to downed crops and lost time during the busy harvest season. Combine and tractor fires also cause 40-50 serious injuries each year.

The Nebraska State Fire Marshall’s Office, working with data from 37.5% of the state’s firefighting units, reported the following farm-related fires for 2016:

  • Combine, threshing machine, hay processing machine or other powered equipment — 39 fires
  • Rural areas, including open field and farmland areas — 249 fires
  • Other causes, including hot, smoldering objects, embers, conducted heat, and undetermined — 30 fires

Combines can present problems unique to their use. To stay safe from fires combine operators should check for:

  • The build-up of combustible crop residue around the engine and exhaust system.
  • Concealed drive belts and pulleys which can overheat due to friction when there is an accumulation of crop residue around them.
  • Electrical wiring and connectors that have become worn or frayed, resulting in sparks which can ignite grain dust, crop residues or fuel vapors.

Maintain Equipment

Preventative maintenance is key to preventing many of the fires that occur on farm equipment. Good preventative maintenance not only prolongs equipment life but also reduces fire hazards. If you haven’t done so already, here are a few things you can do to prevent fires:

  • Keep all bearings and gears well lubricated to prevent heat buildup and keep lubricants at proper levels.
  • Repair any leaks in the fuel system and any damaged electrical wiring.
  • Repair or replace damaged or worn out exhaust systems. In addition to a good exhaust system, a spark arrestor can be installed to catch burning particles. The arrestors are easy to install and require little maintenance.

Use Safe Fueling Practices

Too often during harvest season, safe fueling practices are ignored in an effort to save time. The few seconds saved are insignificant when compared to the loss of expensive farm equipment or weeks or even months spent in a hospital burn ward. Follow these safety practices:

  • Never refuel equipment with the engine running. Always shut the engine off.
  • Allow hot engines to cool 15 minutes before refueling.
  • Extinguish all smoking materials before refueling.
  • If fuel spills on an engine, wipe away any excess and allow the fumes to dissipate before starting the engine.

Be Prepared for Fire

In the rush to harvest it’s often overlooked, but starting to harvest a field on the downwind side can help keep a fire from spreading. If a fire does occur, the flames will be pushed toward the harvested portion of the field.

  • Always carry two fire extinguishers on the combine, one in the cab and one that you can access from the ground. Also carry a fire extinguisher in your grain hauling equipment.
  • Always carry a cell phone or alternative for communicating with others in case of an emergency.
  • If a field or equipment fire does occur, call 911 before trying to extinguish it yourself.
  • Have a tractor hooked to a disk near the field you are harvesting, but located where it wouldn’t be affected if a field fire should occur.
  • If using a fire extinguisher, stay between the fire and your path to safety.
  • When using a fire extinguisher, remember to PASS. P-A-S-S stands for Pull, Aim, Squeeze and Sweep.
    • Pull the safety pin on the extinguisher.
    • Aim at the base of the fire.
    • Squeeze the handle.
    • Sweep the extinguisher back and forth while releasing the contents.

Following these safety tips can seem like common sense, but with the long hours and the rush to get harvest done, sometimes these are forgotten.

I want to wish everyone a prosperous and safe harvest season.

For more information on harvest safety, contact your equipment dealer, your local fire department, or your local extension office.

Source: John Wilson, University of Nebraska CropWatch