Modern communications help manage farm fires

The basics haven’t changed for fighting combine fires and resulting field fires, but technology is helping with communication and co-ordination.

There have been numerous fires this fall in the general vicinity of Highway 32 in southwestern Saskatchewan and as a result a Wildfire–Highway 32 group chat has been set up with more than 140 participants at last count.

This approach bridges the communications gap between different types of smartphones allowing a large number of people to communicate from various devices.

When you spot smoke on the horizon, you often don’t know if it’s five miles or 25 miles away. Should you hurry toward the smoke flume and see if you can help out or is it too far away for you to get there in a reasonable time?

How many people are already deployed? What’s the threat of it getting out of control? What sort of equipment is needed the most? These are the sorts of questions that communication through the group chat should be able to address.

The weather has been hot and dry over a large region, so it’s not surprising that fires are an ongoing concern. Nearly everyone carries a fire extinguisher or two on the combine and often in trucks as well and that’s obviously the first line of defence. The hope is to control a fire immediately while it’s still manageable.

Unfortunately, a combine fire can easily lead to a field fire and now there are two problems to solve. In a situation like this, wind can be the enemy.

Being able to raise the alarm through a group chat should improve the response from neighbours. At this time of year you really don’t know who is nearby at any given time. People can be harvesting land close to or far from their yard site.

A fire in a nearby lentil field close to our farm generated a big response from people in the area. We saw the smoke, realized it was nearby and were able to join the people helping out.

The firefighting equipment on site included shovels, a leaf blower, small water tanks, water trucks, a tandem disc and even an aerial applicator flying low over the fire line and dropping water.

People with shovels are typically the first to arrive, but if the fire is hot with lots of smoke they can have limited success. It often takes longer for water trucks to arrive and even longer for some sort of tillage tool, but these can be really effective for controlling a field blaze.

Beyond communication, readiness is vital. We mounted a pump on the water truck just for such an event. However, the water truck is also used for other purposes and one of the hoses had to be tracked down and attached. Fortunately, we remembered to fill the pump with gas before the truck roared off to the fire.

While being deployed, the output hose started to leak and looked like it might slip off the pump. Not surprising when you’re pulling on the hose. Had it released we had no screwdriver to reattach.

Even when you think you have equipment ready for a fire event, you probably haven’t practised with it to iron out the kinks. You have it ready, but hope to never actually use it. That can lead to frustration.

It’s also frustrating to wonder about every puff of smoke on the horizon, but modern communication methods can help with that.

Kevin Hursh is an agricultural journalist, consultant and farmer. He can be reached by e-mail at kevin@hursh.ca.

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