Fire in canola hopper bin causes consternation

An extraordinary photo that went viral on social media depicting a Dec. 6 bin fire should serve as a stark reminder of how wrong things can go when storing canola.

The cause of the fire is a mystery to its owner, Jim Shirley, who farms about 1,000 acres near Kelvington, Sask.

Shirley found out about the fire when a neighbour called and said there was a problem at his bin site.

“When I got there, the fan was burned off the bin and canola oil was running out the bottom of the hopper, about three inches thick, and down past the barn about 100 feet way,” Shirley said.

“It’s unbelievable how much oil was coming out of that canola.”

Firefighters arrived at the scene and poured water into the hole where the fan used to be.

“They threw some water in there and that kind of just settled it down a little bit,” Shirley said.

Neighbours also showed up to help Shirley, but it was a difficult fire to fight because it was contained inside the bin.

They decided to remove as much canola as they could as quickly as possible.

“Some (canola) came out with the auger, then we cut a bunch of holes in the hopper and drained it out, but it was sitting right underneath the bin. The cone was really hot so we thought we had to get the bin off the pile or it will light up again,” Shirley said.

All of the canola in the bin was ruined.

“We were able to auger some out, but it was already burned and water damage. There is 1,600 bu. altogether and none of it was any good for anything,” he said.

They pulled the hopper legs off the bin with Shirley’s tractor in an attempt to get it away from the pile of canola and the propane tank used for its dryer.

When they were attempting to move the bin there was about 100 bu. of canola still inside, which burst into flames.

This was when Shirley took the photo.

“It wouldn’t fall over, it was like one of those big tops. We pulled all the legs off and we thought it would just fall over. But it just wouldn’t,” Shirley said.

“We kept hooking on to it with chains and tow ropes, and finally it just kind of spun it around.”

The bin continued to stand until a day later, when Shirley finally tipped it over to get it out of the way.

Three days after the fire, smoke was still coming from the canola pile.

There were about 1,600 bu. in a 2,300 bushel bin, which also had a propane heater installed.

The heater had been turned off for about two weeks, but the propane line attached to it was still charged.

“The propane tank was right by the bin, like maybe 20 feet away. The hose had burned off, but it had that safety on it, so it shut off. That was a good thing,” Shirley said.

He said he is unsure how the bin caught fire.

“The canola came off at 13.5 (percent moisture) and I had the air on it for a month, so it wasn’t that it was heated, I don’t think. But what lit it up, I don’t know. I’m thinking a bearing on the fan threw some sparks in there or something.”

He said he climbed up on the bin a few days before the fire and noticed the air was blowing through the canola and there was no smell.

“Sometime an aeration fan will find a hole and go through it. But if there was burning going on I think I would have smelled it, I’m just about sure of it,” Shirley said.

He said he has seen heated canola before, including a bin of his father’s more than 30 years ago, but he has never heard of a bin catching fire like this one did.

“I’ve never heard of a bin lighting up, like burning. They’ll get charcoal in the bins, but they don’t burn. That’s why I’m thinking something must have lit this thing,” Shirley said.

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