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Fires in the field

If you want to see the landscape of hell painted prettily on a farmland horizon, watch a field of corn on fire. It is hellish enough, in my view, to see corn fields stretching away in every direction from sea to shining sea with no houses, barns, trees, fences, grazing animals or any other sign of human habitation in sight. But when a curtain of fire is rushing across this land of the free and home of the brave, the effect is quite as terrifying as watching a big slice of the Great Plains suddenly disappear before the onslaught of a dust storm.

Nothing in my experience prepared me for the field of corn on fire that I came upon in my travels. It was just awesome. I pulled off the road and deliberated on whether there was anything I could do. I had fought plenty of grass and wheat stubble fires and knew the best weapon of defense was a wet gunny sack, or rather a whole bunch of people thrashing out the flames with wet gunny sacks, but this fire was at least 15 feet high and way too hot to get close enough for hand fighting. Fire trucks were arriving from all over however, and farmers with big tractors and disks were rumbling in ahead of the blaze to rip up wide swaths of soil in the standing corn to stop its advance. Fortunately, this was Ohio, where the fields were relatively small and where the wind was not blowing hard enough to whip up a forest-sized blaze. The fire was contained in an hour or so.

In this year of drought, together with fields of hundreds, even thousands, of almost unbroken acres of tinder dry cornstalks, the situation is especially dangerous. The National Weather Service has issued its Red Flag Warning meaning “extreme fire danger” for various parts of the cornbelt, particularly west of the Mississippi. Some eleven major corn fires were recorded in Iowa in 2011, and the Weather Service is worrying that the situation is much graver this year.

Human carelessness and pyromania are the biggest concerns, but so far the tractors and grain harvesters themselves are the commonest source of fires. In 2011, nine counties in Iowa reported an average of nearly seven combine fires per county according to Weather Service records. These machines require intricate webs of electric wiring inside them to run all the “automatic” controls. When plant debris during harvest collects near hot wires or bearings, look out. Oddly enough, bird nests are a common source of fires. Without tree hollows to use, the birds adapt. Even odder, some machinery brands and models attract nesting birds more than others. (Now here’s a project to warm the heart of machinery designers. I can just imagine the ads: “International Harvester brings you the first bird-proof combine in history!”) A close friend of mine nearly had one of his big tractors destroyed by a bird nest fire and has learned to inspect the innards of his machines carefully before starting up in the morning. I asked him what species of birds are causing the mischief. Typical of nature-deficient farmers today, he didn’t know. I asked around. Same result. It appears though that several bird species are involved. And mice. They just love to build nests on top of the battery in my J.D.

One reason corn fires are now a more critical problem is that plant populations of corn are much higher than they used to be. A stand of corn today is thicker than brush in a California canyon. With some 35,000 stalks per acre in some cases, each stalk six or more feet tall, in rows only 20 inches apart, you have the makings of quite a bonfire. It is just another example of how what some of us call unnatural farming can lead to natural catastrophe. And when a hundred acres of 200 bushel per acre corn burns up, with corn at eight dollars a bushel, you are looking a quite an expensive bonfire too. And I don’t think most of the crop insurance available covers field fires yet.

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