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Causes of Combine and Tactor Fires

Wednesday, September 1, 2010
filed under: Harvest/Storage

Nationally, combine and tractor fires cause 40-50 serious injuries and more than $20 million in property losses each year.

That’s according to South Dakota Cooperative Extension Farm Machinery & Safety Specialist Dick Nicolai, who said these fires also cost millions of dollars in lost time and downed crops during busy harvest seasons.

“The two keys to preventing a combine fire are to keep the machine clean of possible fire-causing materials and to eliminate all possible sources of heat that could lead to a fire,” Nicolai says. “Producers should pay special attention to the engine and engine compartment, since about 75% of all machinery fires start in that area.” Farmers can use pressure washers to remove all grease, oil and crop residue. A clean engine will run cooler, operate more efficiently and greatly reduce the chance for fire.

“It’s important to frequently blow any dry chaff, leaves and other material off the machine with compressed air, and to clear off any wrapped plant materials on bearings, belts and other moving parts,” Nicolai adds. “If any fuel or oil hoses, fittings or metal lines are leaking, make sure to replace or repair them immediately.”

When combining sunflower, producers should back the cylinder or rotor speed down or open the concaves more until you start to see some seeds left on the head, Nicolai suggests. Also, keep the header as high as possible to take in the least amount of stalk into the combine. The objective is to reduce the trash in the combine (and the bin) as much as possible.

Nicolai says combine fires stem most often from exhaust system contact with any flammable material. “Make sure your exhaust system, including the manifold, muffler and turbocharger, are in good condition and free of leaks,” he advises. “Other heat sources include belts that are slipping and bearings about to fail, so producers should keep an eye out for worn bearings, belts and chains.” Badly worn bearings may glow red-hot, he notes, and any rubber belt subjected to intense heat from a worn part can burst into flames.

“Exposed electrical wiring that is damaged or deteriorating can also cause fires,” Nicolai continues. “Replace any worn or malfunctioning electrical components with proper parts from your dealer. If you are blowing fuses or have a circuit that intermittently cuts out, it’s a good sign of a short or loose connection in the system. Arcing electrical wires on a farm machine will generate extremely high temperatures.”

Despite producers’ best intentions and good maintenance, a fire on a tractor or combine can still occur. The best source of protection for a combine is at least one fully charged 10-lb. ABC dry-chemical fire extinguisher, according to the SDSU farm safety specialist. “Only select extinguishers with Underwriters Laboratory approval. Having two extinguishers on the machine is better, in case one malfunctions or loses pressure,” Nicolai remarks. “Keep one mounted in the cab, and one where it can be reached from the ground.”

If a fire does break out on a machine, quickly shut off the engine, grab an extinguisher, get out and get help. “If you forget to grab the extinguisher, don’t go back for it unless the fire is extremely small or confined to an area well away from the cab,” Nicolai says. “Have a cellular phone or two-way radio nearby to get professional assistance to the field more quickly.”

Producers are warned to approach any fire with extreme caution, because even small fires can flare up dramatically as doors, hatches or other areas are opened. These types of fires are especially dangerous when liquid fuels are involved.

"If possible, use the extinguisher’s flexible hose to shoot the chemical from a safe distance at the base of any flames,” Nicolai states. “Continue to blanket the flames even after the fire goes down, since this will allow the area to cool and prevent flare-ups. With a fire in a difficult-to-reach area, or one that seems out of control, don’t risk injury or death. Just wait for help to arrive.”

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