It was a hot September day and I was on the top of the hill, a round bale on the back of my ’58 John Deere 420, with just a baseball cap between me and the sun. This was my first time back on the machine since it was serviced and a new battery put in two weeks prior. It was time to move the round bales from the hay fields to the winter area of the property. Before I got on the tractor I did notice that the battery seemed to be too big of a model. The previous battery had fit perfectly into the recessed area but the new one was much longer. I fired it up, let out the clutch, and away we went bouncing through the fields.
I had been working for about 30 minutes and had put a good dent into the hundred bales I had to get off of the field when I looked down at my feet on the pedals. Suddenly, a fountain of flames began streaming down onto my feet and engulfing the controls. I had never seen anything like it but my instincts took over and I went into critical mode. I put the tractor in neutral, and pulled the break as I simultaneously swept my legs to the side and jumped off the tractor. By this time the flames were beginning to creep upwards and lick the battery and surround the fuel tank, but I was more concerned with the flames on my boots. After putting out my footwear, I grabbed a couple of important tools out of the utility box and for some unknown reason the very empty pail in the bucket and began to run down the hill towards the barn.
I called 911 and explained the situation and where to meet me. After the dispatcher and I spoke for what seemed like an hour, I called two friends to also come to the farm as this fire, with the dry conditions and heat, could quickly spread to the fields, destroying my hay and possibly my fences. I stood at the end of the road watching the deep black smoke rise as the local fire chief pulled up. We decided to call additional units as the engines could not make it out into the field and we would require the mobile units they use for extinguishing brush fires. Being a firefighter, I had already donned my gear and the chief and I drove into the field to begin the plan of attack, but before we arrived at the scene, the sky opened up and a deluge of rain began pouring from the sky. The bout of heavy rain had just extinguished the fire as the emergency personal began to arrive. I lost the tractor, but I was unharmed and the fields were spared as well.
Yesterday there was a fire in Columbia County caused by round baler igniting dried hay. Luckily the farmer was able to back the round baler into the nearest pond and extinguish the flames but by that time the fire had already spread into the field. Multiple fire companies responded and the fire was contained to mere 8 acres with a loss of about 30 bales. I stopped by the farm this morning and it sounds like they are taking it all in stride.
I mention these two incidents as a reminder of how dry it is outside right now. There is an elevated risk for brush fires and with so many of us making hay we need to take precautions while working. Do you have a fire extinguisher on your tractor (I didn’t), have you spoken with your insurance agent about your coverage lately (I wasn’t covered), and have you ever practiced emergency evacuation maneuvers on your machinery to find any snags or issues with your exit (I hadn’t). Each season delivers new dangers to farmers and we all know it’s not if something will happened, but when. Please be safe out there.
For those of you interested, further investigation revealed that the positive battery terminal was contacting the gas tank which melted the tank allowed the fuel to run over the battery and ignite both me and the tractor. Although I was not covered by my insurance plan the gentlemen who had made the repairs fixed the tractor for free, although it hasn’t really ever run the same since.