Simple, daily tasks can help prevent fires in the field

By Charis Prunty

The fall harvest has begun in southwest Minnesota, and the Marshall Fire Department has already been called to a corn field after a fire broke out there.

This particular fire on Monday, Sept. 11, was “very small,” said Marshall Fire Chief Quentin Brunsvold, and mostly extinguished by the time his department arrived. However, corn field fires are somewhat common and can be extremely expensive, dangerous, and difficult to extinguish.

“We had a big run last year on some corn field fires and they’re not easy to put out. The crop is six feet tall, so getting people and equipment through there is pretty difficult,” Brunsvold said.

What led to Monday’s fire was impossible to tell, he said, because conditions were so dry. To make sure the fire was completely out, he asked the farmer if there was any tillage equipment nearby that they could use to turn over the dirt. Tilling the ground is an action the fire chief would recommend to anyone who notices a small fire in their field while harvesting.

“If they see [a fire], they could start working it right away,” he said. “Even if they have to drive through the non-picked crops, that would really slow it way down and eliminate some of the issues that we could run into.”

Brunsvold noted that, in this area, most fire departments are made up of volunteers. When these men and women get a fire call, they rush from their home or workplace to the fire house, change into their gear, load up the equipment, and hurry to the fire. It easily takes 15 minutes, if not more, he said. During this time, in a field full of dry corn stalks and leaves, a fire can grow exponentially. Wind can easily push the fire along, moving it even more quickly.

Tractors and combines are often fully engulfed in flames by the time a fire department arrives, Brunsvold said, and are a total loss. Plus, the soil can suffer significant loss of nutrients in a fire. According to South Dakota State University Extension, in an article titled “Avoiding Field Fires During Fall Harvest,” fires can create long term production problems in a field.

“Fields where fires occurred are often left bare. This makes those areas susceptible to soil erosion from winter winds. Lost residue equates to lost nutrients and carbon that is held in the residue. Carbon is a substantial component of soil organic matter and can contribute to long term soil health. Winter snow catch is decreased and evaporation rate is increased in those areas where fires have destroyed crop residue. This directly correlates to yield loss in future years,” according to the article.

One central South Dakota farmer who has long practiced no-till asked a private soil lab to compare samples from one of his fields that had burned, vs. one that had not.

“The lab put a value of $608.00/acre on the nutrient losses (carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium and sulfur),” according to the Extension article. “The producer also noted that yields on burned areas were 50% of yields on unburned areas for two years after the fire.”

All this is reason to take some simple, daily steps that will keep fires at bay, or at least be prepared to intervene when they do break out.

“If you have a small fire — the fire doubles in size every three minutes — it’s going to be a large fire if you have nothing, no way to slow it down,” Brunsvold said.

Besides having tillage equipment on site, he also recommended keeping a working fire extinguisher in the tractor or combine. This can go a long way toward extinguishing the fire or at least slowing it down.

And, consider keeping a leaf blower in the machinery, Brunsvold suggested. He said he knows farmers who keep one of these in the cab and use it each night to clear any remaining debris off the equipment.

“If they have everything cleaned off on a daily basis, that should eliminate a majority of the problems,” Brunsvold said. “Obviously we can’t factor mechanical issues, but if we’re talking about organic material buildup and things like that, that is going to be very combustible. [Cleaning it off] would be the best bet. Don’t start the day with combustible material on your machinery.”

To keep fire safety in mind during long days and nights this harvest season, consider using a checklist like the one provided by the Upper Midwest Agricultural Safety and Health Center. This checklist asks the farmer to look over 11 potential hazards that can lead to field fires, such as “Did you check for damaged wires with worn insulation or frayed belts?” and, “Have you checked that fuses match the recommended capacity?” The checklist can be downloaded at

“Everybody be safe this season,” Brunsvold encouraged. “We don’t want to come to your farm. No fire department wants to go to your farm and have to put your fire out or have to rescue you in situations like that, so everybody just be safe. We hope it’s a bountiful harvest for everybody.”

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