Rural Reflections: Think safety when heading out to combine

Farm Forum

Are you one of those who believe that accidents can’t happen to you? If you get a group of farmers together, there are plenty of stories of near misses.

I know someone who imagines you can over-worry the need for safety, but having supplies on hand and planning for emergencies can make a difference in saving equipment, crops and sometimes lives.

On Sunday, the smoke from a fire near Claremont was clearly evident at our Community Block Party just outside of Frederick. As we visited in the yard with neighbors, the smoke billowed to the east, clearly a major fire. We learned that a vehicle, driving through the dry slough, started the tall, dry rushes, on fire. The vehicle was destroyed and the blaze burned an estimated 750 acres northwest of Claremont for nearly 10 hours. (A special thanks goes out to those firefighters who respond at such times.)

As combines head into the fields in conditions that are tinder-dry, remember to be aware of how quickly conditions can change and how quickly a fire can flare.

Several years ago, we planted sunflowers and harvest conditions were pretty dry. A friend pulled into the field to help finish the flowers. As they rounded the rows, Dale thought it was odd when he noticed that his friend’s combine was heading straight for him. As he got close, his friend stopped his machine and jumped out of the cab with a sprayer tank with a nozzle. From his position, his friend noticed smoke coming from the machine and doused the hot spot on the combine. For Dale, it was lucky that his friend decided to help that day. It was also a blessing that his friend was prepared to spray out those potentially dangerous areas.

Another year, in a soybean field, the dry chaff built up and started a fire in the engine compartment. I remember Dale describing how he knew that there was no way to put the fire out. He threw his tools out of the cab and jumped from the machine, hurrying away from the machine that was soon engulfed in flames. As he didn’t have a cell phone and was 12 miles from Frederick, there wasn’t much that he could do other than watch the combine burn.

Fires do happen and we always kick ourselves when little things get beyond our control. With the cost of a replacing a combine often between $100,000 and $300,000, the extra minutes are well worth the time to check for potential problem areas.

When working at a frenzied pace to get through a field, it’s hard to slow down. The extra precautions can reap long-lasting rewards. Consider these common sense tips for a fire-free and safe harvest season.

• Make sure you have a cell phone and that it has a full charge when you head to the field.

• Spend a few minutes to use your power-washer to remove caked-on grease, oil and crop residue. During harvest, use your compressor to frequently to blow dry chaff, leaves and other crop materials off the machine.

• Bearings can get hot as well as belts and other moving parts. See if there are any materials that have wrapped around those tight areas.

• When heat is mixed with dust and crop residue, that’s a potential spot for fire to start. Learn where to look for those spots.

• Be sure to check exhaust system surfaces, exposed electrical wiring and worn bearings. Check these areas daily and make repairs if there are problems.

• After a long day of harvesting, don’t park a hot combine in the shed or shop. There could be smoldering hot spots in the combine that could flare overnight.

• The University of Minnesota suggests that farmers keep at least one fully-charged, 10-pound ABC dry chemical fire extinguisher with an Underwriter’s Laboratory approval in the combine cab.

• Mount a second fire extinguisher on the outside of the machine that can be reached from ground level.

• If you have a partially discharged extinguishers, get it recharged.

• Have a plan. Know when to wait for help. If you notice smoke, turn off the engine, get out. Approach the fire with extreme caution. Small fires can flare up quickly with the addition of air (by opening doors or hatches).

• If the machine is engulfed in flames, stay a safe distance away.

Farmers should heed the advice of Scott Meints, Brown County Emergency Management director. When referring to the fire in the dry slough this week, he said, “In those areas, you need to use caution. And take a fire extinguisher along.”

Harvesting requires constant vigilance. For many, it’s not if you have a combine fire, it’s when. Take care to keep from losing one of your most valuable farm assets.

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