Meg Reynolds had little warning before the combine she was driving went up in flames.
The Saskatchewan producer was midway through a field of durum wheat Sept. 9 when the blaze sparked in the engine.
Her engine temperature was clear the last time she checked it, she said, something she does regularly while in the driver’s seat, and there were no strange noises to indicate there was something wrong with the machine. Likewise, the telltale smoke was blown away from the cab, leaving her unaware of the growing danger.
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“I had my rad alarm trip, so it was just saying that it was struggling to suck air,” she said. “I checked my engine temperature again and it said it was OK. As soon as I had done that, there was something that caught my eye and I could see billowing smoke and flames to my left by the door.”
Reynolds immediately escaped the cab and called 911 before returning to fight the flames with a leaf blower and, later, her own sweater. Her husband, likewise, joined in the fight after returning to the field with the couple’s grain truck.
By the time the local fire department arrived, the fire was largely under control, Reynolds said.
Reynolds’ story echoes the sporadic combine fires that pop up every harvest, an inevitable result of hot engines working among flammable grain dust and chaff, but stories pack a larger punch this year, when much of the Prairies have either teetered on the edge of drought or fallen past the threshold into crisis.
South-central Saskatchewan, in particular, raised constant alarm from Canada’s Drought Monitor this summer.
By May, all of agricultural Saskatchewan save the southwest corner was in a state of extreme fire risk and more than 300 grass fires had been reported.
By the end of July, drought conditions were being blamed for residential fires when the dry earth contracted, yanking live wires out of electrical boxes. In early August, CBC reported that seven fires in Regina could be linked to the drought.
By the start of September, the government extended its fire ban, a ban some parts of the province had been dealing with for a month.
Reynolds believes that the hot, dry conditions and dust contributed to the fire on her farm.
“Every morning, we blow our combines off with a leaf blower and an air compressor and then throughout the day we keep stopping and blowing out the rad and I think just chaff built up in the engine somewhere, is my guess,” she said.
This season has been “pretty bad,” for dry weather and dust, she noted, although the region went through a similar dry patch several years ago.
By Sept. 15, Saskatchewan’s fire danger had receded somewhat and most agricultural areas sat at moderate or high risk, although fire hazards were still “extreme” in a patch of central Saskatchewan.
Manitoba has been more fortunate, although conditions in the south have been dry for much of the year.
A wet spell in mid-September eased some local fears with a low-pressure system bringing rain to much of southern Manitoba.
Chad Davies, fire chief for the Newdale Fire Department, said there has been a heightened fire risk for the last month, although he expects risk to go down with the recent rains.
A local farmer lost a field of barley in his area, Davies said, but the fire was considered “suspicious” and no farm equipment was involved.
The Office of the Fire Commissioner, likewise, says it has not heard of any significant rise in combine fires, although a spokesperson urged farmers to consider the conditions they are working in and keep fire extinguishers on hand.
In many ways, Reynolds says she was lucky. The blaze took about 15 acres of the field she was harvesting, but was slowed by a dividing strip, cut earlier to separate two side-by-side durum fields.
The wind, likewise, hit a temporary lull, picking up again soon after the fire was put out.
The family had about 400 acres left to harvest, although Reynolds noted that they own an older combine and a family friend arrived the day after the blaze to harvest 120 acres of canola.
“We’re lucky that it wasn’t at the beginning of harvest,” she said.
It was the third fire within 45 kilometres in the same short period of time, including another combine fire and a bale fire, according to Reynolds, who is also a member of the local fire department.
Lack of data
At least part of the problem is that nobody knows how many producers have tales like Reynolds, said Keith Castonguay, Manitoba Farm Safety Program director. There is an endemic lack of safety data in the farm industry, he said.
Castonguay has been searching for statistics on farm-related injuries, deaths and incidences such as fires. Short of calling every fire department in Manitoba, however, he says there is little information available.
“Farmers don’t report things,” he said. “Generally it’s through social media.
“In any other industry, if you get injured, you have to report through workers’ compensation,” he added.
That requirement does not apply to family farms where only family members are employed, although the Workers Compensation Board encourages voluntary participation, while Castonguay pointed out that the nature of family farms, where the workplace and home are one and the same, means that injuries to children often also slip through the reporting cracks.
“I’m actually just working right now on changing that so that we can get more current up-to-date information and in a timely manner so that we can put out — through social media or through advertising or whatever we have to do — to create awareness about the incidences so that we may be able to prevent future ones from happening,” he said.
The Manitoba Farm Safety Program has put fire in its sights this month. Castonguay says fire safety and extinguishers will appear in the program’s next official publication. The program also launched its new hog barn fire assessment service Sept. 12.
The new program will inspect barns using infrared cameras to identify hot spots and faulty wiring, the cause of most hog barn fires in Manitoba.
“One of the problems that I see with farmers in Manitoba is, to tell them to go out and get something like a first aid kit or a fire extinguisher may sound fine when you’re living in Winnipeg, but if you’re out in the middle of distant Manitoba, it would be hard to get it,” Castonguay said. “What we’re asking is that if they have a problem, give us a call and we’ll help source (supplies) for them. If I have to drive it to the farm personally for them, I will.”