Recent research from the Kondinin Group has revealed approximately 7% of our nation’s harvesters will likely start a fire this year. And, of these fires, one in ten will severely damage both machine and crop.

But we humans are not at the whim of statistics. The old cliche is true: knowledge is power. And, with the right research and resources at your disposal, you can keep your crops and machines safe.

Harvester fires: the two main causes

According to Craig Ruchs of the Grain Research and Development Corporation,

“machinery failure is in many cases responsible for fires starting so it is critical that all growers undertake scheduled harvester operation checks and regular maintenance leading up to and throughout harvest in an effort to reduce the risk of fire.”

It’s not only an issue of harvester care and maintenance. Certain crop types are just more susceptible to fire. Lentils and pulses being a prime example.

Fires don’t need a lot to get started. All it takes is the right combination of fuel, heat and oxygen.

The fire triangle

Image Credit: GRPH3B18

When it comes to harvesters, you’ve got an array of heat sources, including turbochargers and exhaust manifolds. Throw in low humidity, windy conditions and a crop that, unfortunately, doubles as a fuel source, and you have all the makings of a fire.

According to Pulse Australia, 75% of harvester fires start in the engine bay, with rock strikes, electrical issues and failed bearings making up the remaining 25%. This is why pulses, like chickpeas, pose additional risk. Their structure and chemical composition combine to make them clump up inside the header. This places fuel for the fire in easy reach of a heated ignition source and creates an ‘accident waiting to happen’ scenario.

Harvester fires: what you can do

While the combo of harvester and volatile crop has fire-starting potential, there are plenty of measures farmers can put in place to minimise the risks. The GRDC recommends:

  • regular and stringent harvester maintenance;
  • exhaust system shielding treatments (particularly for those growing lentils and pulses);
  • referring to the Grain Harvesting Code of Practice before harvesting to check whether conditions are optimal;
  • regularly cleaning out residue (particularly with pulse crops);
  • checking beneath covers and guards for dust and chaff buildup;
  • using a hand-held thermometer to check all moving parts and bearings for hot spots;
  • keeping the electrical system well maintained and weeding out worn or rodent-damaged cables;
  • checking oil seals and keeping an eye out for fuel and hydraulic line leaks;
  • using drag chains to avoid static electricity accumulation;
  • making use of the battery isolation switch when the header isn’t in use;
  • keeping a fire suppression system in the harvester;
  • ensuring all operators are trained in fire prevention and fighting techniques.

Ben White, engineer with the Kondinin Group and fire-safety advocate, says growers can merge these extra checks into their existing pre-harvest maintenance work to keep the process streamlined. While exhaust insulation blankets can be beneficial in keeping the heat part of the fire triangle out of the equation, White warned growers need to first check whether there will be any warranty implications. He suggested operators also keep an eye on their temperature gauges when using exhaust system shielding treatments.

For further information, the GRDC has a handy guide on preventing harvester fires you can download and keep.

Harvester Fires: How They Start & How to Avoid Them
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Harvester Fires: How They Start & How to Avoid Them
7% of our nation's harvesters will likely start a fire this year. Find out exactly how and why they start and what you can do to avoid becoming a statistic.
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