Rural Fire Chiefs Worry Drought May Lead to Fires

GILBERTVILLE, Iowa (AP) — Field fires are always a concern during harvest. The worst drought in decades has magnified the situation.

Fire chiefs in Gilbertville and La Porte City are shocked their volunteer departments haven't needed to extinguish a blaze in a standing or freshly harvested corn or soybean plot this fall. They also realize there's still plenty of grain to combine.

Bob Demuth of Gilbertville and Shane Clark of La Porte City hope firefighters aren't needed, but each has a feeling it's only a matter of time. Gilbertville typically fights three to five field fires a year, while La Porte City responds to 12 to 20.

"I'm surprised there weren't more through the summer, as dry as it is," Demuth said.

The latest U.S. Department of Agriculture Crops and Weather Report said 23 percent of corn has been harvested in Northeast Iowa. Twenty percent of soybeans is out. Updated figures, which weren't available at press time, will be released today.

Tinderbox-like conditions in conjunction with working combines — with hundreds of hot, moving parts — and other equipment can spark blazes that firefighters say are very dangerous. Typical causes are burned-out bearings, malfunctions and field debris lodged in machines.

Another common culprit of field fires are pickup trucks. A hot exhaust system, like a catalytic converter, can ignite dry field stubble.

Clark urges farmers to remain vigilant during harvest.

"Plants are drier (than ever). There's a lot more fire load, and the possibility of a fire spreading is higher than normal," Clark said.

In early October last year, dry and unseasonably warm temperatures prompted the National Weather Service to issue fire warnings for much of the state. No such warning exists now.

Burn bans were lifted more than a month ago in the area. Clark, a full-time farmer, said fellow producers still need to take precautions to prevent field fires.

Farmers are urged to carry multiple fire extinguishers in equipment — both chemical and water-charged. Preventative maintenance on equipment and daily cleaning of combines, greasing bearings and looking for worn parts and belts will go a long way to preventing fires.

Another helpful hint is to have a disc hooked up to a tractor to help fight a fire by taking away the fuel source.

It's not uncommon to have multiple combine fires a year in the region, fire officials said.

Clark said a few profitable years of selling grain may be a reason there hasn't been a field fire yet.

"People have been trading off old equipment. New engines don't run as hot," Clark said. "Farmers are taking more care ... keeping up machines."
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