Dry weather sparks fresh spate of farm fires

As parts of the UK have been announced as officially in a state of drought, the frequency and severity of rural fires continues to devastate many farms across the country.

Yesterday’s heat brought with it a new wave of harvest-related fires, with many farmers assisting fire services by using cultivators to create fire breaks in fields.

One farmer affected was Cotswold-based Jeremy Clarkson, who took to Twitter to announce the halting of operations.

See also: Prolonged dry spell heightens fears of winter forage shortage

He tweeted: “F****ty F**k! Had to stop harvesting because of, and I’m not making this up, the fire risk.”

Meanwhile, the Hampshire and Isle of Wight Fire and Rescue Service battled a blaze in Overton, near Basingstoke.

In an official statement, the service said: “Crews from across the county were called to tackle a large blaze in a field in Overton.

“The 800t pile of straw was well-alight, with fire engines, water carriers and Land Rovers responding to the scene at around 18:30 yesterday evening [11 August].”

“Jets, hose reels and beaters [were] used throughout the duration of the operation. The incident has been scaled down with around 15 firefighters continuing overnight, working to extinguish the fire.”

The fire services were helped by the farmer who ploughed the surrounding grassland to create firebreaks.

A similar blaze also broke out in Tenbury Wells, Worcestershire, consuming more than 40,000sq m of crops.

Reducing the risk

With the current heatwave set to continue into the weekend, the NFU Cymru has issued advice to farmers to help with combating harvest fires, including using What3Words – an app that allows users to pinpoint their exact location.

This is particularly useful for emergency services trying to access remote rural locations and fields.

Preventative measures also include fitting tractors and harvesting machinery with secured fire extinguishers, and ensuring that parked machinery is not left near any combustible material, such as bale stacks.

With the increased risks of small sparks starting fires, supermarkets have also rolled out portable barbecues bans, with Tesco and Sainsbury’s joining M&S, Aldi and Waitrose in removing the products from shelves.

Country Land and Business Association (CLA) president Mark Tuffnell said: “During this period of prolonged lack of rainfall, record temperatures during heatwaves, and wildfires damaging the countryside, policies such as this that can mitigate potential further fire damage are sensible and necessary. 

“We warmly welcome people to the countryside as they seek to enjoy the glorious weather.

“But we ask them to help us protect farmland and natural habitats by not lighting barbecues, fires and other potentially hazardous materials such as sky lanterns.”

Fire safety checklist

Rural insurer NFU Mutual has issued a farming fire safety checklist, to help farmers reduce their fire risk.

Evita van Gestel of NFU Mutual Risk Management Services said: “Dusty, tinder-dry conditions combined with hot moving parts, lots of electrical wiring and a tank full of diesel provide everything that is needed to turn a spark into a violent fire.

“Not only can this result in the loss of hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of agricultural machinery, but it can also damage or destroy nearby crops and buildings, and disrupt harvest at a time when farmers can least afford it.”

The checklist and safety measures include: 

General fire safety

  • Have a plan in place in the event of fire, including a system for keeping in contact with lone workers and anyone working or living on farm 
  • Identify hazards, such as fuel and fertiliser stores or dry straw and grain, and take steps to isolate these where possible
  • Keep vehicles away from these stored materials, as hot engines could ignite dry materials nearby. When storing vehicles inside with other materials, keep the vehicles sufficiently distant from combustibles
  • Keep electrical wiring inspections up to date
  • Clear workshops of combustible items – maintain good housekeeping
  • Keep mobile phones on you at all times – it’s no use to you if it’s left in a tractor or pickup cab 
  • Keep a bowser filled with water on hand and make sure all workers can access this water supply, and be prepared to create a fire break in the event of a crop fire
  • Use the What3Words app to help emergency services can find your location easily
  • Remind staff to keep well-hydrated, take sufficient rest breaks and monitor for fatigue, stress and mental ill-health symptoms

Agricultural machinery/combines

  • Ensure planned preventative maintenance is up to date and in accordance with manufacturers’ service schedules before using any machinery
  • Fit a suppression system that meets P-mark status to contain, extinguish and prevent fire
  • Regularly clean out dust and chaff from hot spots and check the machine over when you finish use for the day
  • You can use a mobile compressor (or a fixed one if fitted to the combine) to regularly blow away debris from the machine, but only do so if the exit pressure is reduced (as a guide 30psi/2.1bar is effective at cleaning)
  • Wear eye and respiratory protective gear to protect from dust and never point an airline at a person to remove dust from clothing, as there is a risk of injecting air into the skin and causing bubbles in the blood stream
  • Switch off engines and ensure moving parts have stopped before clearing blockages or carrying out maintenance
  • Always stop to investigate hot-running engines or bearings 
  • Make sure drivers are aware of the locations and heights of power lines and check that you will safely pass under wires 
  • Keep a fire extinguisher on the combine – and ensure it is regularly maintained