23 Nov 2020
How to reduce the risk of fire on farms

How to reduce the risk of fire on farms

  • Escaped fires from farms can have a devastating effect on the local area
  • Machinery and hay are common causes of fire on farms
  • It’s also important to be aware of the fire-starting potential of both commercial and domestic jobs on farms.

While this summer’s La Niña weather pattern should help dampen the potential for a fire season as severe as last summer’s, there’s no room for complacency – especially when it comes to the day-to-day operations on a farm.

“There are many ways fires can start on farms,” says Rod Ostrognay, QBE’s National Product Manager – Rural. “And once they start, they can be extremely difficult to contain. They can escape, and that can have devastating consequences.

“Therefore, it’s essential to be aware of situations that can cause a fire and have the right practices in place to minimise the risk.”

Managing harvesting machinery

One of the most common fire threats on a farm comes from machinery during harvesting. In fact, according to research from Kondinin Group1, approximately 7% of our nation’s harvesters will start a fire this year.

Machinery damaged from fire during harvest on Australian farm

Machinery damaged from fire during harvest on Australian farm

High ambient temperatures, a relatively dry landscape and winds combined with bearing failure, for example, can be a recipe for disaster and Ostrognay says, among other things, regular maintenance of machinery is critically important.

“A regular servicing schedule sounds a simple thing, but is easy to overlook,” he says.

“By regularly maintaining your equipment, making sure it’s serviced, changing the bearings and greasing things up, you keep it in the best condition possible.”

Carrying out regular inspections to ensure the harvester is free from electrical and mechanical problems is also important.

It’s smart to regularly run the machine at speed, then keep it idling to see if there are any signs of any problems. Pay specific attention to chain and belt adjustments, shaft monitoring systems and other warning systems.

In addition to carrying out regular engine maintenance, clearing machinery of hay and grasses regularly when in use is also important. Fires can quickly start from material collecting on hot engine components – for example, the manifold, exhaust and turbocharger.

As well as hay and grasses, crop type is also a factor in harvester fires. Chickpeas, canola and lupins can generate excess grain dust when harvested, which creates a greater fire risk.

Harvesting with care

Of course, the rules on when you can and can’t harvest differ depending on your location.

“Each state and almost every council has different criteria of when you can and can’t harvest,” says Ostrognay.

“While there are overall bushfire approaches to doing things safely, there’s no state-based or national directive about when it’s safe to harvest.”

On a state level, however, there may be minimum requirements in terms of anti-spark arresters to be fitted to machinery, and the number of fire extinguishers, water and sand you have close by.

And that emergency equipment is vital because, despite best efforts, things still can go awry.

Onboard operators should have fire extinguishers, knapsack spray pumps, a shovel, rake and access to a high-capacity air compressor for regular blow-downs. It’s also important to ensure all harvest workers know the location of firefighting equipment and are trained to use it.

“Having water and fire units within the paddock is also a requirement, and it’s important to remember to relocate them at the same time as the harvesting equipment,” says Ostrognay.

Related article: Protecting your business through bushfire season

Hay shed fire in Victoria, Australia - October 2016

Hay shed fire in Victoria, Australia - October 2016

Don’t risk hay fires

Haystacks can also pose a significant fire risk on Australian farms, says Ostrognay.

“Spontaneous combustion is one of the major causes of haystack fires.

“Spontaneous combustion can occur in any seasonal conditions, and farmers are particularly exposed to this risk when hay isn’t properly cured before baling, or when it’s stored in environments that expose it to moisture.

Wet hay is more likely to lead to spontaneous combustion than dry hay, says Ostrognay.

“Bale and store each hay type at the correct moisture level, and avoid exposing hay to rain, leaking roofs and spouts, and runoff as much as possible.”

Additionally, make sure air can circulate and you’re monitoring heat levels regularly with a hay thermometer.

Hay can also be set alight by sparks from machinery and hot exhausts, and is vulnerable to bush or grass fires, says Ostrognay.

“Taking steps to prepare before hot weather and keeping stacks away from potential heat sources is key.”

“It’s also a good idea to keep machinery or trucks in a separate shed away from any hay. This removes risk of vehicles and machinery setting light to the hay and means they aren’t exposed if a hay fire does occur,” says Ostrognay.

Making sure appropriate fire breaks are in place around all hay or silage stacks is also important.

Safety on the small jobs

Of course, fires can be accidentally started by numerous other sources – especially on a farm where there’s always significant work to be done.

“A difficult thing is the blurred lines between domestic and commercial activities on a farm,” says Ostrognay.

“As well as being a place of work, a farm’s also home, and there’s always going to be both commercial and domestic jobs that need to be done – and many of these could potentially start a fire.

“It’s something to be aware of. A small job with an angle grinder may not seem a big deal, but it could easily start a fire – and in a setting such as a farm, it can spread quickly.” 

Related article: What is a Hot Work Permit, and why do businesses need them?

By regularly maintaining your machinery, having strong safety measures in place to minimise risk and the right equipment in place to tackle anything that does inadvertently happen, you can significantly reduce your risk of fire.

“Over the years, I’ve seen escaped fires from farms have a devastating effect on the farm itself, the surrounding area and community, and the people involved. Sadly, far too many people’s lives have been lost in farm fires.”

The severity of the potential impact is enough reason to check everything’s in working order and have safety measures in place to minimise the risks.

Find out more about QBE Farm Insurance


1 https://www.farmingahead.com.au/harvesting/news/1330167/the-keys-to-reducing-harvester-fire-risk#:~:text=Kondinin%20Group%20research%20has%20revealed,the%20machine%20or%20surrounding%20crop

The advice in this article is general in nature and has been prepared without taking into account your objectives, financial situation or needs. You must decide whether or not it is appropriate, in light of your own circumstances, to act on this advice.

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