Fire & Forensic Investigative Updates


farm fire investigations
Agricultural and Heavy Equipment Fire Investigations

Joseph Barcus, CFEI, CVFI, is a senior fire investigator with Applied Technical Services, Inc.

During harvest season, we will see agriculture equipment, such as combines, harvesters, tractors, spreaders, and bailers being involved in fires. The equipment can be involved in fires caused either by mechanical or electrical failure, a bad repair by a mechanic, design flaws with the polyethylene fuel tanks, or just unforeseeable misuse.

Recently we have seen drought like conditions throughout the United States which can be a large contributor to agricultural fires. With warm temperatures, exceptionally dry crop conditions, low humidity and high winds create conditions conducive to fires. Once a fire starts, it's easy for a spark to be relocated just by the normal functions of the equipment. Many machine components including fiberglass shields, wiring harnesses, flexible hoses and plastic fuel tanks can burn.

An Estimated cost of a replacing a combine alone without the needed accessories is $300,000. With the accessories of the header or the GPS tracking, the total cost can be well above $500,000. With the amount of money that is at risk, recovering the money through subrogation will be a priority. Hiring the right investigator that knows the equipment and how it operates is essential.

A fire investigator that knows the equipment and knows what questions are key ingredient for successful subrogation. Questions like; what were the rpm's of the fan? What is the operator's inspection routine? Do you use an air truck? Where do you clean your combine and what are your intervals? Do you dump and roll? And when did you empty your stone trap? A good investigator also knows to survey the field by either walking or using a drone.

Applied Technical Services (ATS) has experienced fire investigators that have investigated hundreds of combines and other large agricultural equipment and facilities.

What causes silo fires?

Silos are a very simplistic structure but there are many possibilities where a fire can occur. Fires can happen due to the operation of the equipment unloading, electrical problems, overheated bearings and slipping belts. These items can ignite dust and dry materials on the equipment. There can also be human error. For example, the dial on the silo dryer was turned up to high, he lack of monitoring the product inside the silos resulting in spontaneous ignition or faulty installation of parts.

Spontaneous ignition is caused when the product (silage) inside the silo ignites from the within stored silage. The leading cause of this type of fire is from the low moisture content in the silage and air drawn into the silo. Air enters the silo through cracks in the walls or around poorly fitting doors. Poor distribution during filling or the lack of stirring the product during storage may result in poor compaction and contribute to fires.

Fermented silage is formed when the product is stored in the absence of air. The bacteria responsible for fermentation produce a certain amount of heat, thus silage will become fairly warm during this process. When the silage becomes agitated and oxygen is introduced, the presence of oxygen may allow the microorganisms to reproduce too rapidly and generate heat faster than normal. The silage surrounding an area with excessive heat generation acts as insulation, so temperatures can climb quite high and combustion may occur.

A knowledgeable fire investigator will ask the farmer if they probe their product. If they do, the very next question to the farmer should be to request a copy of the moisture content records or the silage management records. This record is a log of the product inside the silo that will provide information (data) to the investigator to help him/her determine if the fire was caused by spontaneous ignition. Another question the investigator should ask is: Where was the silage in the drying or cooling cycle? The link provided is a video that shows the process of a grain bin silo provided by Dancorn, Sukup Europe.youtu.be/RRISXr_euWo

Applied Technical Services (ATS) has experienced fire investigators that have investigated hundreds of combines and other large agricultural equipment and facilities.

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