Fires are legendary among custom cutting crews for their devastation and the sheer explosive terror of ignited wheat dust and chaff.
Told with reverent, awe-charged voices slightly too loud denying the fear lurking scarcely beneath the cautious laughter, fire stories wield a power all their own. The loose belt on Simpson’s Case that dropped a whole row of fireballs into the field before anyone saw. The chopper on Carter’s 9600 running too slowly, but not slow enough to trigger the warning light, that heated up and caught the machine on fire.
And Murphy’s big one last year near the reservation. Three thousand acres and a nearly new combine consumed. Then they finally brought it under control, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs crew arrived stopping their van on the burned field. While the crew chief was still arguing with Murphy over the relative danger of parking a gasoline-powered vehicle on still hot stubble, the van itself ignited, starting another fire, burning 4,000 additional acres and settling the argument.
That morning, just before I arrived to snap pictures and watch the harvest, Jeff hung a chain from the axle of the new John Deere 9750 combine he and Kristin bought two weeks before. A 30-acre wheat field fire in Fort Benton just the day before was being blamed on static.
“I’m not taking any chances,” Jeff said with a laugh to Steve, the farm owner.
“I’ve never had a stubble fire,” Steve said. “But I know they happen, and they’re never pretty. We always used to hang static chains on our combines. Sure doesn’t hurt.”
The cabin vents blew cool air drying our sweat as Jeff showed me some of the features the machine had: Various readouts showing moisture and yield in addition to a plethora of warning lights tracking every function throughout the huge machine. I snapped pictures as the 36-foot header swallowed the 85 bushel/acre wheat crop and filled the 300-bushel hopper behind our heads.
“Not such a bad office to work from, is it?” Jeff said with a smile. From my comfortably cushioned passenger seat I watched him. Seated on his plush captain’s chair, his left hand resting on the top of the small steering wheel, his right hand holding the joystick that controlled most of the machine’s functions including ground speed — a steady two and a half miles per hour; header height — 7 inches to provide plenty of straw to bale; and reel height and rotation speed—adjusted based on height and amount of crop lodging — he looked every bit like a shirtsleeve executive. Or a spaceship commander. Or a kid playing a video game.
Kristin called Jeff’s cell phone from Billings where she had gone for parts to ask if he needed anything else before she headed back to the field. “Just some Dairy Queen,” he said.
“Right. How am I supposed to get that to you without melting?” Kristin said. “So nothing then? I have one more stop to make.”
“We’re good,” Jeff said, laughing. “Nothing’s broke. We don’t need anything else.”
After we have been cutting for just over an hour, Jeff cocks his ear at the end of a run. “I keep hearing a little chatter in the feederhouse,” he says. “Might be a chain or it might be one of those finger tines on that drum. They’re mounted in a rubber bushing and sometimes the bushing gets worn and the tine starts to rattle.”
I try to isolate the sound he hears from the thousand other sounds the working combine makes. We reach the east end of the swath, and Jeff raises and stops the sickle and reel and makes the turn and begins to guide the combine into the next pass. I glance to the west, and for a split second I doubt what I am seeing.
“Fire!” I shout. “Fire.” I point dumbly halfway down the windrow we’ve just cut.
Jeff’s jaw drops and his tanned face visibly whitens. He shoves the variable speed joystick all the way forward and jams his foot on the range selector, grinding it into road gear. The 325-horsepower diesel belches out black smoke and lurches down the field.
Jeff leans forward urging the big machine to go faster. As we near the fire, I see Josh, Steve’s son, racing toward us on his tractor and baler. The flames have built to a height of more than 10 feet and a diameter roughly the same. I fight off a brief wave of hopeless despair, then I open the cabin door.
“I’m going to run over the side of the fire with my wheel to try to slow it down,” Jeff shouts.
He plows through the flames and swings the combine to a halt. We both bail off the platform. I race into the windrow and begin kicking the straw away from the flames trying to remove the fuel. Josh runs toward us with two fire extinguishers. Jeff grabs the biggest one and begins dousing the flames with water.
Josh pushes the button on the smaller chemical extinguisher. Nothing happens. He flings it over his shoulder and plunges into the windrow with me kicking at the flames and the fuel. The water slows the fire’s intensity, but the extinguisher is soon dry. The three of us stomp on flames and kick dirt onto the burning straw and stubble. We have the fire contained to a 6-foot length of windrow when Steve arrives on his tractor and drops his grader blade and begins cutting a trench around the fire.
I climb onto the platform and grab my camera for a quick shot of the now controlled fire. I glance down and see Jeff frantically removing every shield and cover from the combine. Josh and I follow him looking for smoke or any sign of what could have started the fire.
“Here it is, Jeff,” Josh says. He points to a trail of smoke by the chopper.
Jeff opens the panel and we all stare at the smoldering chaff. Jeff sweeps it onto the ground and we stomp it out.
“There’s nothing there that could get hot,” Jeff says. We all examine the spot. Two hydraulic lines run across the panel and I feel them, but they are not hot. No bearings or belts or chains, no moving parts come in contact with this area of the combine.
“That’s not where it started,” Steve says. “Something hot just dropped in there, but that’s not what started it.”
All of us speculate what could have caused the initial spark. We are reluctant to leave the site. We kick a little dirt over smoking spots in the stubble. “Do you even have any hair left on your legs?” Josh asks me.
I laugh. “I didn’t exactly dress for fighting fire today,” I say, glancing down at my filthy bare legs.
Steve has piled a mound of dirt over the fire site. He climbs off his tractor. “Well, I guess if every farmer has to have a stubble fire,” he says, “then this is the stubble fire I’ve always wanted.”
Jeff shakes his head. “I’m glad you’re still smiling,” he says. “This could have been a show stopper.”
Jeff replaces shields and covers and we drive to the end of the field to empty the hopper. Kristin has arrived from 20 miles away in Billings, and hands us Dairy Queen ice cream.
“I stuck it in the air conditioner slot to keep it from melting,” she says.
“We had a fire,” Jeff says.
“Huh-uh,” she says. Her smile disappears. I see her surveying the field and running a mental inventory of machinery.
“Oh, my God,” Kristin says. “I can’t leave you guys for a minute. What started it? Is anything wrong with the 9750?”
Jeff shrugs. For the rest of the day various hypotheses are offered as to the source of the fire. Steve finds a freshly broken rock in the windrow and declares that to be the culprit. Static is suggested as a possibility. Spontaneous combustion, exhaust spark, cigarette ash, chain drag, belt lash. Nothing quite seems to fit.
The tenor of the banter is no longer the relaxed humor of this morning but a forced, tense, almost desperate joking. We finish cutting the fields just after sunset. Long after the day’s work has ended and darkness has settled in and most of us have gone to bed, Jeff and Kristin drive back out to the field to check their combine to make certain it holds no hidden smoldering chaff.
Early the next morning Jeff takes apart the feederhouse to find the source of the chattering noise that has bothered him the day before. Deep inside, he discovers a bad bearing, and once we pull the shaft we see the blackened end where it had been very hot. The source.
Jeff whistles as he pounds the bearing off the shaft. Kristin calls John Deere in Billings and reads them the part number from the burned bearing.
They have the bearing, and she climbs in the pickup to make another parts run.
It’s a good day.