LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — Farmers usually hope for sunny weather to help speed their harvest, but weeks of unseasonably warm temperatures have dramatically increased the risk of field fires, prompting growers to take extra precautions as they navigate equipment through dry crops.
Thousands of acres of farmland already have caught fire recently, including giant blazes this week in central Nebraska and south-central South Dakota.
The National Weather Service has issued "red flag warnings" for firefighters and land management agents in Minnesota, Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas, western Missouri, eastern Colorado, North Dakota and South Dakota. The warning indicates a heightened fire danger in those regions.
"It's not unusual to have some fires this time of year," said Denny Gorton, president of the South Dakota Firefighters Association. "But to have this many fires, of this size, with thousands and thousands of acres burning — that's extremely unusual."
Although a little rain is possible this weekend, the weather is expected to remain warm. The dry weather also means the moisture content of corn and soybeans in many areas is far less than ideal, and unless it improves farmers will be paid less for their crops.
Regardless of the conditions, farmers have little choice but to begin harvesting when their corn, soybeans or other crops are ready.
Bruce Rowher, who grows corn and soybean near the northwest Iowa town of Paullina, said he narrowly avoided a fire recently on his property.
"I saw what looked like dust blowing across the field and then realized the dust started at a point in the middle of the field so I got out there and found embers trying to ignite," he said.
Rowher, 59, said it appeared some wires on his combine shorted out and heated up dust that had accumulated on the machine. Rowher, who keeps a fire extinguisher, water and a shovel on his combine, managed to douse the embers before they could flame up.
"If I hadn't been looking and been in the right place at the right time it could have had a different result," Rowher said Thursday, as he was finishing up harvesting 500 acres of soybeans.
Earl Ziegler, a 62-year-old soybean famer from southern Minnesota, said this year is the worst he's seen for fires. He knows of six fires in his county alone. He said all farmers can do to reduce the risk is to check their equipment closely.
"Every day I take an air compressor and blow all the dust off the machine and do a good inspection to make sure there aren't any parts rubbing or bearing goings out that could cause friction and create a spark," said Ziegler, who farms 500 acres of soybeans and 500 acres of corn near Good Thunder, Minn.
Michael Schommer, a spokesman for the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, said officials are using social media tools such as Twitter to remind farmers to take precautions, including checking equipment and grabbing a fire extinguisher before heading into the fields.
Iowa Agriculture Secretary Bill Northey said his agency is putting out a similar message.
"The challenge with the wind and dry weather is it's hard to stop them once they start," Northey said.
Iowa state Climatologist Harry Hillaker said the dry conditions — while not nearly as severe as those in Texas — have left states in the northern Plains and Midwest with plenty to burn.
"One thing we have here is thousands of square miles of corn and soybeans and the vegetation is so dense that if a fire got started and if we get the high winds, things can spread very, very quickly," he said. "The fire danger is pretty severe."
Associated Press writer Michael J. Crumb reported from Des Moines, Iowa.