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How To Reduce the Risk of Combine Fires When Harvesting

Late in the 2020 growing season, straight line winds ripped across much of the Grain Belt. And in its wake, that derecho left many farmers wondering how they were going to get their downed crops into the combine and eventually off to market. Grain prices were already suffering due to the pandemic, and the damage those 100 mile-per-hour winds did wasn’t helping.

With much of your grain crop lying horizontal on the field, combines can’t work efficiently and the risks of fire in the combine increase as debris collects on the equipment near high heat sources. To reduce the fire risks of harvesting downed grain and lodged corn, and we’ve put together these key tips to help keep you and your team safe.

How Do Combine Fires Start During Harvest Season?

Even perfect harvesting conditions can pose fire risks to your combine. Most combine fires start when dry plant material, ground level stalks, crop residue and other organic material build up around the combine’s engine or exhaust system. This added debris boosts the chances of ignition and increases the likelihood of a combine fire or field fire. Mechanical issues can also lead to fires, as well as leaking fuel or oil lines.

Thousands of dollars in property damage can result when hot moving parts, debris and fuel sources are paired so closely together.

Ways to Prevent Combine Fires and Field Fires While Harvesting

Extra precautions may need to be taken to keep the odds of fire to a minimum. Take a look at these ideas to help you manage the challenges faced while bringing in downed grain:

Inspect your tractor and combine often

Create a tractor inspection checklist for operators, to ensure they take the time to remove caked debris around the tractor and combine engine. Have them also inspect and pull matted debris from the exhaust lines as well, to prevent dry plant material from catching fire.

Carry a few extra fire extinguishers

In addition to checking the charge on the onboard fire extinguisher, have your harvesting crew pack a few extra fully charged fire extinguishers before heading out into the fields.

Look for active leaks under the tractor and combine

Get a flashlight underneath your equipment before starting up and look for oil, fuel or other leaks that might later ignite when introduced to heat-bearing surfaces. Wipe down any leaks and make repairs before getting into the field.

Visit the fuel tank and inspect the fuel lines

Be sure all clamps, hoses, filters and the fuel tank itself aren’t leaking. Keep these key areas clean and debris-free.

Consider installing crop-lifting tools and implements

The following organizations are offering resources and guidance on how to properly harvest downed grains:

Reduce ground speed

Train your staff to slow down and adjust the combine’s gathering chain and snapping roll speed to match the speed of the combine.

Harvest against the grain

Aim the combine to collect the grain toward the head of the fallen crop.

Inspect the combine and tractor in the field

Because organic crop residue will frequently blow into bearings, belts and other moving parts, it’s important to keep your machine clean in the field. Train workers to shut down the engine at regular intervals and remove debris.

Allow the engine to cool before refueling

Allow at least 15 minutes for your engine to cool down before adding fuel. If possible, refuel in the morning when the engine is cold.

After shutting down for the day, allow the equipment to cool for at least 15 minutes before leaving the field. Additionally, clear caked debris prior to leaving the field, especially around belts bearings and other heat producing components.

Train your staff to watch for dry, windy conditions

Weather can change across the day. If the winds pick up on a hot, dry day, have your team respond by assessing the chance of fire. It may be necessary to halt operations because a small fire can burn out of control quickly — if the humidity is low and winds are gusting.

What to Do if a Fire Breaks Out on Your Combine

Although it’s not pleasant to think about, having a plan on how to respond to a combine fire can make a big difference. If fire breaks out, you need to act decisively. In addition to assessing the extent of the fire, containment is key. Take a look at these tips to help reduce the damage combine fires can cause to your crops and equipment.

Stop at the first sign of smoke or fire

Exit the tractor and move away from equipment, bringing the fire extinguisher with you.

Activate your farm’s emergency action plan

Be sure to launch your farm's emergency action plan to coordinate help and manage key communication.

Call 911

Get in touch with emergency services on your cell phone immediately and describe the issue. If first responders need to be dispatched, you’ll have the advantage of getting them on the way sooner. Offer details on how they should approach your position and which access roads to take to get them there as fast as possible.

Remain on the line with the 911 dispatcher

Leaving the line open enables the fire department to triangulate your GPS position. Describe where you are in the field and reference three position points to help first responders locate you more easily. For instance, provide them with an intersection of county roads A and B on the northeast lot, around the other side of the hill.

Try to contain the fire

If it’s safe, start by extinguishing an area already burned. Avoid breathing fumes and sweep the fire extinguisher across the base of the fire.

Train your employees on the P.A.S.S. method for putting out a fire with an extinguisher:

P: Pull the pin

A: Aim at the base of the fire

S: Squeeze the lever

S: Sweep from side to side

Move to a safe location if the fire is out of control

Leave the vicinity of the fire quickly if you’re not able to extinguish it. Once the ground crops ignite, you’ll need to get away fast. Move upwind and away from the tractor and remember — fuel tanks, tires, hydraulic lines can explode at any moment. Get into the black area of a field fire. The area has already burned and is the safest place to be if the fire is still actively burning.

How to File a Claim After a Tractor or Combine Fire

If your tractor or combine is damaged after a fire, it’s important to get the claims process rolling as soon as possible. Here are two ways to contact American Family Insurance to file your claim:

Get the Coverage You Need to Protect Your Investments

With so much on the line, you need to know your operation will be protected if an unexpected fire breaks out in the field or in the barn. Be sure to reach out to your agent for a farm insurance review to verify you've got the right policies, endorsements and scheduled coverage in place — before you need it. Afterwards, you may find more peace of mind when harvesting in these uncertain times.

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