Fires reap Nebraska harvest

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John Schieffer’s pickup truck was lost in a harvest fire in early October.

Story and Photos by Stephanie Smolek, NewsNetNebraska

John Schieffer watched as the fire destroyed his pickup truck. The 21-year-old farmer was alone in Cedar County last month when the field fire erupted, consuming his truck.  He had never experienced anything like it.

“You hear about it all the time on the radio and news, but you never think it can happen to you,” Schieffer said. He was shredding corn stalks when his shredding machine sparked the fire that quickly ran out of control. The fire scorched 960 acres; burning crops, trees, an irrigation system and Schieffer’s truck.

According to the Nebraska Fire Marshall’s office, such wildfires have destroyed thousands of acres of crops this harvest season. Shredders, combines and other harvest equipment spark these fires, said Jim Heine, Assistant State Fire Marshal. “We typically have combine fires,” he said. “We are going into harvest and that’s just the nature of it.”

Even though they won’t have official numbers until the end of the year, Heine said they are receiving more harvest fire calls this year than previous years. It is impossible to know how many harvest fires there are because not all of them are called in, Heine said.

The largest fire was near Stapleton in central Nebraska.  According to the Stapleton fire department, the fire burned through more than 40-square miles on Oct. 5. Nearly 26,000 acres went up in smoke. Damage estimates were pegged at $4 million.

This map shows locations of some of Nebraska’s harvest fires this year.

View Nebraska’s 2011 Harvest Fires in a larger map

Dry weather is sparking flames

This year, the warm, dry harvest weather has reached a dangerous extreme. The small amounts of moisture and a low humidity have increased the chances of fire, said Allen Dutcher, Nebraska state climatologist.

Dry crops can start fires, Dutcher said. When crops are dry, Dutcher said combines and other harvest machinery turn more of the plant into dust. When the dust builds-up on the operating machinery it can catch fire if temperatures get too high, he said.

Last month, the National Weather Service issued “red flag warnings” in Nebraska, Minnesota, Iowa, Kansas, western Missouri, eastern Colorado, North Dakota and South Dakota. The warning indicates a heightened fire danger.

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Wind spread the Cedar County fire through fields and trees.

The risks continue

Cold weather kills grass, turning pastures into fuel for fires, Dutcher said. “A lot of fires materialize in late October and November because plant material is dead and we typically enter our driest portion of the year,” Dutcher said.

The good news?  Harvest is almost over. The Nebraska Agricultural Statistics Service reported corn harvest is 73 percent complete and soybean harvest is 98 percent complete. The National Weather Service “red flag warnings” have been dismissed.

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Farmers understand a fire can be random, but look to find why it consumed their crops.

Is the equipment causing problems?

Assistant State Fire Marshal Heine said new combines might cause fires. “Everything is really enclosed,” he said. “You can’t see the engine like you used to.” Heine said the extra coverings might cause dust buildup and prevent farmers from seeing fires sooner.

Dave Morgan isn’t so sure. The farm safety specialist at the University of Nebraska—Lincoln tractor test laboratory doesn’t believe manufacturer would make new tractor designs that cause fires. Morgan does believe newer, bigger combines may limit visibility. In big machines it’s harder to see a fire if it is behind the driver, Morgan said.

Morgan said not all fires are caused by combines. A truck or another tractor can just as easily start a fire. “Sometimes you just don’t know what started a fire,” Morgan said. “Belts slip and bearings wear out. Both can spark a fire.”

A bearing broke when Schieffer’s shredder sparked. “I heard a clunk. I looked behind me and there was a fire about the size of a basketball,” Schieffer said.  Within ten minutes the fire had raced across the field, jumped the road and was spreading through the next field, all because one bearing broke. “That stuff just happens randomly,” Schieffer said.

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The Cedar County fire destroyed multiple irrigation tires.

Prevention is possible

“You only have to have one combine fire to teach you how to take care of stuff,” Morgan said. No matter how old the equipment is, maintenance is important, he said. “Sometimes they’re new, sometimes they’re old,” he said. “It doesn’t really seem to matter.”

Farmers need a fire plan, Morgan said. “Carry a fire extinguisher,” he said, “but call 911 first because the fire could get out-of-hand before you get another chance to call.” Assistant State Fire Marshal Heine said farmers should carry a 10-pound fire extinguisher in all of their tractors. He recommended inspecting engine compartments twice a day too. “In dusty, dry, dirty conditions dust just builds up in there.”

Even so, Heine said the best maintenance will not prevent all fires. “It’s hard to know when something is going to go out and spark,” he said. “Sometimes just driving into grass with vehicles can start fires.” Morgan agreed. “You can’t get rid of 100 percent of the possibility of a fire,” he said. “But, you can try to prevent one and be prepared for one.”

Despite the fires and the risks, farmers across Nebraska are continuing their harvest work. “Sure it is scary, but I kind of got over it,” Sheiffer said. “My uncle said to me, ‘If you can’t handle it you probably shouldn’t be a farmer.”

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The Cedar County fire burned through this line of trees and moved to the field beyond.

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