Ten tips for reducing the risk of harvester fires

Author: | Date: 06 Dec 2017

Removing flammable material from the engine bay is important.

Photo: Ben White

The Grains Research and Development Corporation (GRDC), fire safety experts and other industry organisations are encouraging growers to implement practical measures to reduce the risk of harvester fires over the coming months.

Recent header fires have highlighted the importance of harvester hygiene and maintenance, especially when harvesting more volatile crops such as lentils.

Kondinin Group research reveals that on average, about seven per cent of harvesters per year will start a fire. In these cases, one in 10 will cause significant damage to the machine or surrounding crop.

Kondinin Group research engineer Ben White, who has reported to the GRDC and industry on harvester fires, says where harvest is now underway it may be too late for growers to make modifications such as exhaust system shielding treatments, so their attention should be directed to ongoing monitoring of machinery throughout harvest.

“Machinery failure is in many cases responsible for fires starting so harvester hygiene is incredibly important – operators should be conducting regular clean-outs during harvest and exercising particular caution when harvesting leafy pulse crops, as these are renowned for dust build-up,” Mr White said.

Mr White offers the following 10 tips to improve harvester fire safety:

  • Most harvester fires are caused by dust and trash build-up and bearing failures. Keep the machine cleaned down regularly, starting at the front then working in a top down approach. A final revisit and blast of air over the exhaust system to dislodge any dust that may have been disturbed and settled in the course of the clean down is recommended.
  • Pulse crops are substantially more volatile than cereals so extra care and vigilance is required when harvesting these.
  • Monitoring and logging bearing temperatures with an infra-red heat gun or thermal imager helps identify at-risk bearings so they can be replaced before failure.
  • Recognise the big four factors that contribute to fires: relative humidity, ambient temperature, wind and crop type and conditions. Abide by state-based grain harvesting codes of practice and declared harvest bans, and observe the Grassland Fire Danger Index (GFDI) protocol on high fire risk days.
  • Have at least the minimum required water and fire-fighting unit in the paddock being harvested.
  • Having a pair of extinguishers (water and A/B/E) at the cab entry ladder and a pair at the rear of the machine closer to the engine means fire-fighting options are available when and where they are needed. A fire suppression system provides the best chance of extinguishing a fire on a harvester.
  • Having a fire plan in place with the harvest team is imperative. Knowing who will do what and identifying communications channels to be used means everyone knows what to do. Having a listing of emergency numbers or uhf channels in the cab is essential.
  • Harvesting highly volatile crops like lentils across the paddock into the prevailing wind gives operators a better chance of containing the fire as incendiaries are blown onto stubble, not standing crop.
  • If operators do have a fire on board, pulling out of the crop immediately and facing the machine into the wind before attempting to fight it gives the operator the best chance of controlling the fire. Remember, harvesters are replaceable so prioritise personal safety.
  • Static does not start fires, as it does not have enough energy for ignition of crop residues. Be mindful that it can, however, contribute to dust/fuel loads on the machine.

The GRDC is part of a national harvester fire working group, led by Grain Producers Australia (GPA), and is currently reviewing research, development and extension (RD&E) gaps and associated need for future investment.

GPA chairman Andrew Weidemann says it is important for industry to unite in an effort to counter the increasing incidence of harvester fires. “The working group includes growers, the insurance industry, contract harvesters and machinery manufacturers – we are working together to address the issue and prevent these fires occurring,” Mr Weidemann said.

Mr White has reported to the working group on what he sees as the “unknowns” about harvester fires, stating that while it is recognised that some crops are more volatile than others, it is unclear as to whether this is due to agronomics, varietal or crop history. Limited work has been done to determine ignition temperatures.

“Some operators have modified their exhaust streams with ceramic coatings, high-temperature paints, moldable alumina-silica, double skin exhaust components, insulative blankets and fiberglass bandages,” Mr White said. “We don’t know how these perform relatively and what temperature reductions we can expect with each of the different treatments.”

The relative benefits of fire suppression systems, low-cost alternatives to thermography for hot-spot detection and the use of chains and cables to dissipate static also require further investigation, according to Mr White.

GRDC Senior Regional Manager – South, Craig Ruchs, says with harvester fires becoming an issue of increasing concern in the southern region in recent years, particularly when harvesting lentil crops, the GRDC had responded through investment in technical workshops in Victoria and South Australia in 2016, support for a recent joint workshop in Victoria’s Wimmera and involvement in the national working group.

“Whilst the GRDC has invested in technical trainings and publications to raise awareness and knowledge, we are now in the process of reviewing future RD&E needs to address critical research questions.”

Meanwhile, the GRDC’s Reducing Harvester Fire Risk Back Pocket Guide, available here, serves as a summary of fire prevention and minimisation methods and also includes a handy Harvester Fire Reduction Checklist.

Contact Details

For Interviews:
Ben White
0407 941923

GRDC Adelaide office
(08) 8198 8400

GRDC Project code: DGQ00003