Thursday seemed like a typical Fall day sunshine, some breeze and farmers busy harvesting soybeans and corn. But the breezes continued to gain strength and by midday were full-fledged winds howling and gusting to 55 miles-per-hour. Coupling the wind with extremely dry conditions, the recipe was set to create a "Perfect Storm" of field fires.
Fire Departments in Palo Alto County responded to 13 field fire calls on Thursday afternoon at locations scattered around the county. In the course of the day's fires, four combines were damaged or destroyed along with a field cultivator being damaged during the course of trying to contain a large blaze east of Emmetsburg. However, no injuries were reported in any of the incidents.
"Graettinger was called at 12:07 to a fire northeast of there," noted Palo Alto County Sheriff Dennis Goeders. Graettinger firefighters were called to assist the Wallingford Fire Department in extinguishing a field fire, and then were called to another fire northwest of the community on the county line, where they battled to contain the fire as it threatened a confinement facility and fields of standing corn.
Gale-force winds, extremely dry conditions and harvesting combined to create what some authorities called a “Perfect Storm” for field fires last Thursday, Sept. 29. A total of 13 fire calls were reported in Palo Alto County alone that afternoon, with the loss of an undetermined amount of soybean and corn acres, as well as combines and other property. This blaze was located just a mile and a half east of Emmetsburg and closed U.S. Highway 18 for a time due to the heavy smoke blowing over the highway. --Dan Voigt photo
The West Bend Fire Department was called soon after that to a soybean field fire northeast of town, which was quickly extinguished, but about an hour later, re-ignited, prompting a return of firefighters. A third fire in Kossuth County east of West Bend brought the fire department out of quarters a third time around 4 p.m.
Emmetsburg firefighters found themselves in the hot seat, so to speak, as they were called out for a soybean field fire on 310 Street near Osgood, and within just a few minutes, were being paged to a second fire a mile south on 320 Street, that could have been caused by flying embers from the first fire. As those two blazes were extinguished, a call came in for a field fire near Cylinder that the Cylinder Fire Department responded to, while a third call came in for a field fire at the north end of the 480 Avenue-Huron Street pavement. Upon arrival, Emmetsburg firefighters found fires in two fields across the road from each other. Area farmers were at work in one field with a disc and chisel plow, working to turn earth over the burning residue to smother the flames.
Around 3 p.m., the Mallard Fire Department was called to a combine fire three miles west and a mile south of Curlew, and within five minutes, a second call a mile away prompted Mallard firefighters to call on Ayrshire firefighters for mutual aid assistance. The Ayrshire crew contained the second fire while the Mallard fire fighters extinguished the combine, owned by Neal Heldt. However, there were no injuries in the blaze.
Emmetsburg firefighters had no more than returned to the station when they were called back to the fire on 480 Avenue, which had re-kindled, in the gusty winds, but it was promptly extinguished. But as they finished that call, a new fire was reported a mile and a half east of Emmetsburg on the north side of U.S. Highway 18 in a soybean field. Thick smoke quickly blanked out visibility on the highway, prompting the Palo Alto County Sheriff's Office to block traffic for a time.
In the process of fighting the blaze, a farmer with a field cultivator found himself in a predicament as chaff from the bean field had built up in the gangs of the implement and were soon ablaze. The flames reached the guide wheels of the implement and they burst into flame. The operator stopped the tractor on the south end of the field, unhooked the blazing implement from his tractor and escaped the area, but the flames quickly moved into the ditch of the highway. Quick work by a crew of Emmetsburg firefighters stopped the fire in the ditch before it could jump Highway 18 and get into a standing field of corn.
"In several of these fires, we had farmers coming into the fields with their tractors and discs and chisel plows, making fire breaks and covering up the trash and residue and that was a great help to the firefighters," Sheriff Goeders said. "I know with all of the fires going on in the surrounding counties, several sheriff's were asking farmers to cease and desist from field work until the winds went down, it was just crazy out there."
Goeders also noted that many individuals and firms aided firefighters as they struggled to stay ahead of what seemed to be an impossible situation. "I know MaxYield was at a fire with a tanker of water to help out, and AgPartners and POET were notified and ready to aid with water if need be. And, the farmers who came out, there were a bunch of them down by Curlew just going round and round the fire to help knock it down with their implements. Everybody just worked together."
The Emmetsburg Fire Department would be called one final time at 5:28 p.m. to a citizen's report of a combine in a cloud of smoke west of the ILCC Farm on Highway 18, but the cloud was dust and chaff from the harvesting process, not a fire.
Palo Alto County wasn't the only place where the action was hot on Thursday a farm home, several out buildings and acres of crops and cropland were destroyed in fires in O'Brien, Clay, Emmet, Pocahontas and Buena Vista counties, among others.
With the extremely dry conditions of farm fields, due to the lack of rainfall since July, area officials say the vegetation is extremely dry and volatile right now.
"The smallest spark or even heat from an engine or exhaust on a combine is enough to start fields on fire," noted Goeders. "With Thursday's strong winds, that dust and chaff would blow around those engines and catch fire and that's how the fires spread so fast."