Mark McLean had quick help from neighbours and firefighters to limit damage caused by a harvest fire
By Jackie Clark
A farmer in Huron County was glad him and his team had a fire plan in place when a wheat field was set ablaze during harvest on Sunday morning.
Combine operators had started working in the field close to the farm’s home base around 11 AM. Only 20 minutes later, Mark McLean heard one of the operators raise the alarm.
“I was in the yard getting the air seeder ready to plant some double-cropped beans … and we have FM radios in all the tractors and combines and I heard a panicked call from one of the combine operators that we had a fire in the field,” McLean told Farms.com.
“I took off running for the shed to grab our disc ripper. We leave the disc ripper hooked up to a tractor ready to roll,” he explained. “I could see the smoke, it was probably no bigger than the size of a car by the time that I’d seen it, and by the time I was heading to the field in the tractor it had progressively grown.”
McLean used the tillage equipment to make a fire break in the wheat, and was joined by a neighbour within 10 minutes.
“One combine operator called a neighbour who happened to be close to his tractor and ripper in his yard,” he explained. “Another neighbour was there about the same time with a backhoe, trying to smother it out.
Folks from the local elevator down the road also came down to walk the ditch to make sure the fire hadn’t jumped into the next field, he added. “When you see smoke everybody kind of stops what they’re doing and figures out what it is and if they can help.”
The fire department happened to be training at the hall on Sunday morning, and so were able to show up with a full fleet within 12 minutes.
“By the time the fire department showed we had 98% of the fire out,” McLean said. “The whole thing took about 20 minutes from the time the fire started to the time we had it out and the fire department was there.”
In the meantime, “both combines returned to the gravel pad,” he explained. Operators removed the headers and took combines to the wash bay to look for hot spots, extinguish any machinery and find the source.
Firefighters put some water on the field for good measure, and were able to use infrared cameras to look for hot spots on the combines.
“They identified a couple concern spots that we made sure we cleaned up and checked out before we fired back up,” McLean explained. “Probably an hour, an hour and a half after the whole situation, we were back full-on combining.”
Overall, “we lost probably two acres of wheat, and that’d be one acre burnt and another acre form the disc rippers,” he added. “There was a feeling of relief and euphoria” that the outcome hadn’t been worse.
McLean had a fire plan in place, and the disc ripper always follows the combines from field-to-field during harvest.
Even so, “we were really surprised to see, even with the ground being as wet as it was, how easy it was for the fire to get going,” he said. “Everybody in the neighbourhood now has some kind of tillage following their combines, or just sitting in the field, ready, and even manure tankers seem to be sitting ready with a lot of water in them. Everybody’s on high alert now.”
He also had a sprayer tank full of water, however “but the water is no good … you can’t get close enough safely to the fire to douse it with water,” he explained.
Each situation is unique, but McLean thinks a tillage program likely most effective.
Fire can travel faster than a tractor, depending on the wind, he added. “There’s no sense risking your life to try to save a little bit of wheat, but then try to get it stopped before it goes some place to damage property.”
McLean isn’t sure what caused the fire.
“With today’s emission systems on these combines and tractors, everything runs hotter, and I think that’s half the problem,” he said. “Usually you need some kind of equipment failure or something to happen to cause a fire, whereas on Sunday we didn’t have an equipment failure or anything out of the ordinary.”
That’s why “it’s important to have that conversation: if we do have a fire, here’s how we’re going to handle it,” he added. “You never know when it’s going to happen, whether it’s before, during or after harvest, you can’t be complacent.”
Though you never want to be in a fire situation, this outcome was close to the best-case scenario.
“When you start to see something like that you never know what’s going to happen. When it was all said and done there was nothing lost but a bit of wheat,” McLean said.