NFU Mutual is urging farmers and agricultural contractors to take extra prevention measures before this year’s harvest to prevent “devastating farm fires”.

The rural insurer is specifically urging farmers to protect their combine harvesters from fires this harvest, as more than 90% of the combine harvester fires reported to it in 2022 and 2023 occurred in July and August.

With this year’s harvest season approaching, NFU Mutual is urging farmers to take all possible steps to reduce the risk of fire in their combines, balers and tractors.

The leading rural insurer is also calling for legislation that requires manufacturers to install fire suppression systems as standard on agricultural vehicles, so this is no longer a burden placed on farmers.

NFU Mutual rural affairs specialist, Hannah Binns, said combine fires can quickly spread through growing crops to engulf neighbouring fields and properties, so prevention measures are a matter of “protecting human and animals lives” as well as the cost of replacing machinery.

“Fires can spread at frightening speeds and modern combines are such large complex machines that one component overheating or wiring short-circuiting can lead to a huge fire.

“The risk of fire spreading is much higher in hot dry summers – but fires also break out and destroy expensive combines in cooler, damper weather.

“Keeping people safe must always be the first priority, and we urge farmers and their staff to only tackle a machinery fire if it is small and they can do so without putting themselves at risk.”

Combine fires

Binns said finding a replacement combine or an agricultural contractor with spare capacity during harvest can also be tricky, subsequently impacting the business.

“Fitting a fire suppression system could help reduce the chances of combines catching fire, helping farmers avoid the challenge of getting harvest finished with no combine,” she said.

“In the long term, we would like to see regulation requiring manufacturers to install fire suppression systems as standard on agricultural vehicles to protect farmers’ safety and food security.”

Craig Codling of NFU Mutual’s agricultural engineering team added: “Carrying out regular maintenance on schedule and cleaning chaff and dust from machines regularly reduces the risk of a combine fire.

“However, even the best maintained combines can catch fire if a bearing overheats, a fuel pipe breaks, or an electrical component short-circuits.

“We have tested combine fire suppressant systems and have found that they significantly reduce the risk of serious fire.”

With the aim of helping farmers protect their combines, NFU Mutual is increasing the discount it offers for machines fitted with an approved suppressor system from 15 to 25%.

“This offer will remain in place through harvest until September. We urge any farmers interested in this discount to get in touch with their local NFU Mutual agent,” Codling said.

Fire prevention

NFU Mutual has a harvest fire prevention guide with tips for farmers and agricultural contractors.

It advises to:

  • Regularly clean out dust and chaff from hot spots in combines and balers while in use and twice a day in very dry conditions;
  • Fit a fire suppression system that meets P-mark status to contain, extinguish and prevent fires
    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 ;
  • Have a plan in place to raise alarms, check team safety and direct emergency services to the fire site;
  • Keep mobile phones on you at all times – not left in a tractor or pickup cab ;
  • Make sure drivers are aware of the locations and heights of power lines and check that machinery will safely pass under wires ;
  • Ensure that all fire extinguishers installed on a combine harvester are inspected, serviced and maintained per the approved manual from the suppression system manufacturer;
  • Ensure the design, installation, operation, inspection or maintenance of the fire suppression system is only undertaken by trained personnel that hold a valid training certificate from the suppression system manufacturer;
  • Ensure the harvest team knows where the nearest water source is;
  • Use the what3words app to help direct emergency services to the site of fires;
  • Clean dust regularly from grain dryers – and ensure that all staff are fully trained and know what to do if fire breaks out;
  • Fully service harvesting machinery before starting work;
  • Keep cultivators on hand to put in fire breaks in the event of a crop fire;
  • Keep water bowsers filled and near harvesting operations available to tackle spot fires ensure. If possible, harvest crops so that the wind would carry any potential fire in the direction of already cut crop;
  • Take care when using air compressors to clean chaff to avoid the risk from injecting air into the skin and causing bubbles in the blood stream by wearing PPE and reducing air pressure below 30psi/2.1 bar ;
  • Check the Fire Severity Index to help avoid harvesting in peak temperatures on the Met Office website.