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Australia – Dusty crops significantly increase the risk of harvester fires

There have been at least four serious fires started by headers in Victoria this year, with increased harvesting of legumes such as lentils and chick peas, which are more flammable than cereal crops.

In NSW, fire authorities have reported an increase in fire damage from header fires, including a fire at West Wyalong, which burnt 7000ha and caused $500,000 in crop losses.

Only two weeks into harvest in the Great Southern, Western Australia, the Wagin shire has experienced six fires, four of which were started through a header. This compares to an average of two per season on other years. All fires in the Wagin region had been contained fairly quickly, with the worst fire burning through about 100 hectares.

On Facebook, a number of farmers told tales of header fires in Pingelly, Quairading, Bruce Rock and Bolgart, in the state’s Great Southern and Central Wheatbelt region.

In the Great Southern region, farmers have described this harvest as the dustiest they have ever seen. Narrogin farmers said at times it was even difficult to see where they were driving. While it is not clear what is causing the dust, farmers and agronomists have guessed the frost event earlier in the year may have contributed.

Another theory that has been flagged by agronomist David Stead on Twitter, alongside other farmers, is that it could be related to bigger canopies and a cool finish.

Meandarra farmer John Coggan said he had heard of five instances where headers had burnt to the ground already this season. He said while the chickpea harvest was tricky, there are steps that can be put in place to try and prevent fire.

“The biggest risk is the dust build-up around the exhaust, and it starts to smoulder and then of course it can spread  once the header (fire) takes off it’s pretty hard to stop it. We’ve had a fire hose and tanker hooked up to a vehicle which we’ve used on a couple of occasions this season already, and had we not had it we would’ve lost a header.”

Using high powered compressors is another risk mitigation practice Mr Coggan advocates. “That’s essential, at least twice a day, probably more and if you’re in a risk situation with a header,” he said. Sometimes farmers had to weigh up the risks and even stop harvesting.

“Some headers are worse than others for spontaneous combustion, and if you’ve got a high risk factor in the heat of the day, say from two o’clock until 5 o’clock, you’ll probably have to pull the header up.”

Research by the Grains Research and Development Corporation and Kondinin Group released last month found about 7 per cent of harvesters a year catch fire. In these cases, one in 10 will cause major damage to the machine or surrounding crop.

Australian Custom Harvesters executive officer Trevor Verlin said his association has been working to reduce header fires, but he was worried by the insurance industry’s concern about the risks. “We do know fewer and fewer of the underwriters have been interested in taking on the risk of harvesters, as they do sometimes catch on fire,” he said.

He was told by an insurance agent recently “there would not be an underwriter that would cover harvesters”. “This has the potential to have a significant impact on the ability to harvest the crop,” Mr Verlin said. “The grains industry is increasingly relying on professionals to come in and take off the crop quickly.”

Insurance Council of Australia spokesman Campbell Fuller said while “headers have a high risk of fire” damage, several insurers were still offering cover for harvest equipment. However, he said “a single insurer has signaled to brokers that it will no longer operate in the Australian agricultural market after April 2017”.


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