Top tips for protecting your property this fire season

By: Harrison Hunkin

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With temperatures soaring, we take a look at how you can best protect your property and machinery this fire season

A farmer watches on as a grader creates a fire break near Port Lincoln, SA
A farmer watches on as a grader creates a fire break near Port Lincoln, SA. Photo: Robert Lang Photography/Moment/Getty Images

Summer is here and, for many of us who call this sunburnt land home, this means fire season.

With the Bureau of Meteorology’s (BOM) latest rainfall outlook predicting drier conditions and warmer than average day and night-time temperatures, we could be staring down a potentially harsh 2017 fire season.

The Australian fire seasons differ across states but the vast majority of the country experiences fire season during spring and summer, the BOM says.

A shift towards a weak La Niña could increase the chance of heatwaves for south-eastern Australia, according to the Bureau’s latest climate report.

Victorian Country Fire Authority (CFA) community education coordinator Kevin Sleep has been spreading the importance of fire and farm safety leading into this year’s season, believing the Victorian harvest season could see many fires.

"There is potential for a number of harvest fires this season, so what we’ve been doing is running a fairly big campaign across the north-west region [of Victoria] to try and eliminate the number of header fires," he says.

"We are also looking to reduce the impact of these header fires so that, if this does occur, at least the farmers are a little bit more prepared and have done some planning," Sleep says.

"Last year we had about 45 reported fires – that’s when 000 was called and the brigade was activated – but there could have been a number more that were put out without involving the period."

Sleep says in order to combat the threat of fire, point one for farm protection during fire season is to have a plan.

"That plan should be communicated to family, to contractors working on your farm and also to your neighbours, so everyone in the vicinity knows exactly what’s going on and how they’re going to operate throughout the year," he says.

It is also extremely important that farmers are equipped for fires by owning a combination of tools and equipment, Sleep says.

"Many farmers have what we call ‘private units’ – that can be either a 400-litre tank mounted on the back of a ute with a pump and hose reel or it could be a trailer-mounted unit with a similar principle," he explains.

"Farmers should be equipped with protective clothing, shovels and fire-fighting hoes," Sleep adds. "We also ask the farmers to operate on a certain UHF channel." (District 18 operates on channel 18, and so on.)

The CFA expert suggests that farmers create buffers between farm boundaries to slow the spread of fires.

"What farmers can do is, when they do the first couple of rounds around the paddock, they can drop the machine as low as possible and practical and take the crop off at around that 100mm height," he says.

"What that does is, if you have a 40-foot front on the front of your header and you do two laps, then there’s an 80-foot strip that has a reduced fuel load that can slow up a fire – it also may be an opportunity for the CFA to set up an attack line.

"While a fire will still burn across it, it won’t burn across it at the same intensity," Sleep adds.

He also suggests a crop rotation plan for farmers at risk of fire, proposing the planting of two different crops next to each other to potentially slow down the spread of fire.

"Another option is working out your sowing rotation; you might have wheat in one paddock and on the other side of that paddock could be canola or peas," Sleep says.

"So if a fire does start, it might burn through the wheat crop quickly, but then when it hits the canola it will burn slower, or if it hits a pea paddock it will again burn a lot slower, so your crop rotation could provide some variation and impact on how quickly the fire is going to spread."

Victorian CFA members put out a grassfire in Langley
Victorian CFA members put out a grassfire in Langley. Photo: FLPA/John Eveson/Corbis/Getty Images

 

CFA fire season checklist

  • Have a plan for bad fire risk days that includes your animals – make sure everyone who works or lives on the farm knows what to do
  • Reduce fuel loads such as grasses and trees around assets (house blocks, sheds and fences)
  • Create a heavily grazed area with a water supply for stock
  • Seal all gaps on buildings to stop embers getting inside – this is the most common way to lose a property
  • Check all machinery to make sure it’s clean and in good working order – many farm fires are caused by poorly maintained equipment and machinery
  • Have a system for storing and monitoring hay – purchase a moisture metre if necessary
  • Prepare firefighting equipment such as water fire extinguishers or knapsack spray pumps. Have it ready for anyone using farm equipment or machinery, and make sure they know how to use it
  • Make a list of legal restrictions on burning off and using machinery that apply to your property and display it so family and employees can refer to it easily
  • Check your property name or number is clearly visible so emergency services can find it quickly when approaching the entrance
  • Ensure easy access for fire trucks by clearing vegetation, signposting dead ends or creating turning circles. Make sure water supplies are clearly marked for emergency services.

Harvest fire prevention

  • Dust in the engine bay can be ignited by the exhaust manifold, especially dust from lentils or crops affected by fungal disease. This is the primary cause of header fires
  • If clumps of crop residue are accumulating around the engine, check the radiator intake seals and self-cleaning system are in good working order
  • If your header is starting fires regularly, back off the machine’s ground speed to reduce exhaust manifold temperatures
  • Harvest in a direction to minimise dust intake
  • Consider carefully if weather conditions, especially strong winds, would make it difficult for you to put out a fire if it started. If you couldn’t put it out easily, it’s time to stop harvesting
  • Have a well-maintained and fully operational farm firefighting unit with 250 litres of water located in the paddock area where harvesting or grain handling operations are occurring.

In addition, you should have a harvest checklist:

  • Blow down the machine regularly
  • Check and replace bearings before they fail
  • Locate your fire equipment so that you can access it quickly
  • Keep a UHF or mobile phone handy to call for assistance
  • Consider moving to another paddock if the risk is too great where you are

A burnt-out tractor after a fire in Margaret River
A burnt-out tractor after a fire in Margaret River, WA. Photo: PhilMSparrow/iStock/Getty Images

 

Preventing haystack fires

The major causes of haystack fires are: sparks from machinery and equipment; embers from nearby fires and lightning strikes; and spontaneous ignition.

"Hay can become hot enough to catch fire if it becomes damp before, during or after baling, or if it’s baled while it’s still green," the CFA writes. "This is from a complex series of biological and chemical processes involving bacteria and fungi in the plant material.

"If heating goes undetected, the internal bale temperatures will keep rising, and once temperatures reach about 70C they can keep increasing to the point of spontaneous ignition [approximately 180C]."

 

Signs of heating hay are:

• Steam rising from haystacks

• Condensation or corrosion under hayshed roofing

• Mould growth in or on bales

• Unusual odours (burning, musty, pipe tobacco or caramel)

• Slumping in sections of haystack

Australian bushfire seasons
Southeast Australia

summer and autumn

NSW and southern QLD spring to mid-summer
Northwest WA and the NT winter and spring
Southern WA spring and summer

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