Farm fire safety & prevention

Bushfires and grass fires are a serious threat to a farmer's livelihood. Years of hard work can be wiped out in a moment.

While it is impossible to eliminate the risk of fire, there are things you can do to reduce the threat. A bushfire action plan should be an integral part of your overall business management. The plan should include regular fuel reduction and an adherence to good farm practices.

Burning off is the main farming practice that produces the greatest risk every summer. You need to plan carefully and carry out the procedure with extreme caution at the right time, under the right conditions. This will reduce the danger of a burn off getting out of control.

During the Fire Danger Season

  • You must get a permit from your local Council authorised officer before you can burn off during the Fire Danger Season.
  • You must stick strictly to the conditions set out in your permit.
  • Do not try to burn more than can be controlled at any time with the people and equipment available.

You cannot burn-off on a Total Fire Ban day

Outside the Fire Danger Season

  • Be aware of your local Council's Code of Practice for burning off outside the Fire Danger Season and follow these guidelines.
  • Some Councils have environmental restrictions for burning off. Before commencing a burn-off find out if any restrictions apply in your local area.

Safe practices

When planning a burn off you should follow these safety procedures:

  • Get a permit from your local Council permit officer if you are planning to burn during the Fire Danger Season.
  • Prepare a clean fuel break at least 4 metres wide around the area to be burnt.
  • Get a weather forecast before you burn off, especially for local winds. Do not start too early in the day before weather conditions are settled.
  • Give your neighbours at least 24 hours notice that you intend to burn.
  • Ensure you have a sufficient water supply for firefighting during and after the burn off. You can set up water in a tank with a portable pump on a truck or ute for farm firefighting. You can use this water for refilling knapsacks.
  • Ensure enough people are present at the site from when you light the fire to when you completely extinguish it.
  • Do not try to burn any more area than you can control with the people and equipment available.
  • Use a strip burning method to control the direction and rate of burning to match the wind strength.
  • Where possible burn downhill. Burning up a steep incline even against the wind is always dangerous. Light the fire first on the leeward side of the land to establish a protective break. Burning into the wind will give a slower, safer and cleaner burn. Then light from the windward side of the land. Beware of sudden changes in wind direction and speed. If the wind changes considerably stop lighting and make the perimeter safe. Always make sure the fire edge is blacked out progressively for at least 20 metres into the burnt area.
  • Have immediate access to a UHF CB or mobile phone while burning off to call for assistance if needed.
  • Have a well-maintained firefighting unit in the area where the burning off is taking place.
  • Patrol the burn off area for a few days as stumps and tree roots can continue to burn underground for days.

Burning rubbish/use of incinerators

Some councils have totally prohibited the use of open fires and incinerators for waste disposal on domestic premises. Check with your local council regarding regulations and restrictions for burning rubbish.

Burning green fuel generates lots of smoke and should be avoided. Alternative methods such as mulching or dumping should be considered.

A permit is required to burn rubbish or garden refuse on the ground during the Fire Danger Season. The area must be cleared for 4 metres. You must have a person in attendance at all times with enough water available to extinguish the fire.

For more information visit the EPA website.

Vehicle and engine exhausts cause about 25 fires each year in rural South Australia.

The two main causes are from sparks emitted by the exhaust system and from hot exhaust parts or radiated heat igniting flammable material.

Sparks tend to be caused by engine backfiring or from hot material, such as carbon being expelled from the exhaust.

Flammable vegetation can catch alight when it is caught in a vehicle's hot metal exhaust pipe, muffler or catalytic converter and shield when driving through dry grass or crop paddocks. Under normal running conditions any motor vehicle exhaust can become hot enough to start a fire in dry grass. The amount of heat radiated from a hot exhaust may also be sufficient to ignite flammable vegetation if it is located too close.

Where possible avoid:

  • driving a vehicle across paddocks of long dry grass or crop stubble
  • parking in vegetation on roadsides and paddocks.

Safe practices

We ask that you follow these safety steps during the Fire Danger Season:

  • Regularly check your exhaust system and remove any build up of flammable material caught in the vehicle's exhaust pipe, muffler or catalytic converter.
  • Restrict off road driving to tracks where grass is low and park only in cleared areas.
  • Always carry a knapsack spray or fire extinguisher on your vehicle.
  • Maintain a farm firefighting unit with its own pump, motor hoses and water tank ready to use when harvesting, burning off, welding or conducting other farm operations.
  • Do not carry drums of fuel on tractors. Vibration may cause leaks.
  • Never refuel any machine while the engine is running and always keep a suitable fire extinguisher on hand.

During harvesting season, it's important to remember that harvester and machine losses can be minimised with regular machine hygiene, inspection and maintenance.

Harvester fires can cause considerable damage to surrounding crops and properties, as well as the machinery itself. While it's impossible to eliminate the risk, there are ways you can reduce the chance of fire on your property.

Growers need to be familiar with the South Australian Grain Harvesting Code of Practice to maintain fire safety, ensuring they focus on service, maintenance, and machine hygiene. It's also important there is a well-maintained and fully operational farm firefighting unit with a minimum of 400 litres of water located in the paddock area where harvesting or grain handling operations are occurring.

It's critical to recognise factors that contribute to fire weather, including relative humidity, temperature, and wind speeds.

A regular and proactive machinery maintenance program is vital both before and during harvest, ensuring particular attention is given to wearing parts, hydraulic lines, belts and bearings. Growers should use every means possible to avoid the accumulation of flammable materials on the manifold, turbocharger or exhaust system, with a rigorous clean of machinery in regular cleaning intervals. Be sure to check under guarded areas, where dust and chaff build-up can go unnoticed.

Sparks from angle grinders, welders, oxy cutting tools and other gas fired appliances used during the Fire Danger Season can also cause bushfires.

All operators need to observe the rules for using these appliances outdoors during the Fire Danger Season and comply with the Fire and Emergency Services Act 2005.

  • This equipment can only be used outdoors when there is no Total Fire Ban in force and even then a 10-metre space must be cleared and the operator must have a knapsack or water extinguisher on hand.
  • Dampen down the area with water before commencing work as an extra precaution.
  • On Total Fire Ban days you must have a permit from your local council.
  • Illegal use can result in fines of up to $5,000 for a first offence.

Haystack fires can happen in any type of bale stored in a haystack. Even hay stored as single bales can spontaneously ignite under some conditions. Haystack fires can spread quickly into the surrounding area and often result in thousands of dollars of damage.

What causes haystack fires?

Haystacks can catch fire from:

  • sparks from machinery and equipment
  • embers from nearby burn-offs
  • bushfires
  • lightning strikes

CFS - Hayshed Fire

Hay can also self-ignite when excessive heat builds up. This is called spontaneous combustion, or spontaneous ignition, and is a common cause of haystack fires.

Why does hay heat?

If hay is too "green" (the internal plant moisture content is too high) or it gets damp before, during or after baling, a complex series of biological and chemical processes may cause the hay to heat.

This is because the plant material is still alive and using energy (respiration). This allows microorganisms, such as bacteria and fungi, to grow in the moist environment. These processes generate heat, which may result in the loss of dry matter, nutritive value, and reduced palatability and, if left unchecked, could result in ignition.

Once temperatures reach about 70°C, they may increase extremely rapidly to the point of spontaneous ignition (about 170°C). Spontaneous ignition may occur within two weeks of baling and may continue to pose a threat for well over three months.

Signs of heating hay

Use a temperature probe or a crow-bar to regularly monitor all haystacks for signs that the hay is heating. Other signs of heating include:

  • Steam rising from haystacks.
  • Condensation or corrosion under hay shed roofing.
  • Mould growth in or on bales.
  • Unusual odours (burning, musty, pipe tobacco or caramel).
  • Slumping in sections of the haystack.

Minimising the risk of haystack fire

Make sure hay is fully cured (dead and dry) and at the recommended moisture content before baling. The recommended moisture content will vary depending on the type of crop and bale being used. Use a correctly calibrated moisture meter to check hay moisture levels throughout the baling process. Be sure to test plant nodes and heads inside leaf sheaths for hidden moisture, particularly if baling drought affected cereal hay.

It is important to remember that just one damp bale is enough to ignite a haystack, so make sure you protect all bales from rain, runoff, leaking roofs and gutters. If some bales become damp, they should be stored separately and closely monitored.

Make sure haystacks are limited in size and have enough airflow to allow heat and moisture to escape.

If you get hay from another area, make sure you know the history and moisture content of the hay before you store it.

Be careful when using vehicles, machinery and equipment near haystacks, especially during days of high fire danger.

Protecting your assets

Store hay in different locations around your farm and limit the size of the stacks. This will reduce the risk of losing all of your hay if a fire does occur.

Store hay well away from:

  • possible sources of ignition (such as roadsides, workshops, fuel and chemical storage areas) and away from vegetation that may produce embers if a fire does occur.
  • power lines because they can be a source of ignition. If hay does ignite under or near power lines, it could be very dangerous and may disrupt the local power supply.
  • houses and other assets.
  • vehicles, machinery and equipment.

Create and maintain fuel breaks around haystacks. The wider the break, the more useful it will be to stop a haystack fire from escaping into the surrounding area or to stop a fire from reaching your stored hay.

What to do if hay is heating

If there are signs that the hay is starting to heat, pull the stack apart to improve airflow and allow the bales to cool.

Be aware that very hot hay may suddenly catch alight if it is pulled apart, so if any part of the stack is near or above 70°C or you see or smell smoke, you should call 000 immediately and ask for assistance from the CFS.

Don't walk across hay that may be heating. Charred bales inside the stack may suddenly collapse and result in entrapment, and the rush of air may result in a sudden flare-up.

Key things to remember:

  • Ensure hay is fully cured before baling.
  • Bale and store each bale type at the correct moisture level.
  • Know the history of hay that you purchase, particularly its moisture content.
  • Protect hay from rain, runoff, leaking roofs and gutters.
  • Store hay in different locations, away from assets, and limit the size of stacks.
  • Don't store vehicles, machinery and equipment in your hay shed.
  • Be careful when operating vehicles, machinery and equipment near your haystacks.
  • Create and maintain fuel breaks around your haystacks.
  • Regularly monitor stored hay for signs of heating.
  • It only takes one heating hay bale to ignite a whole haystack.
  • Have your local CFS Brigade in attendance if you have to pull a hot haystack apart.

The two most common LP Gases (or Liquefied Petroleum Gases) are Propane and Butane. LP Gas is widely used as a domestic fuel because it is convenient, relatively inexpensive and safe. As with any fuel, however, certain simple safety precautions must be observed in its use.

LP Gas is derived from two principal sources:

  • it is extracted with crude oils/gases from the earth
  • it is produced during the refining processes.

Characteristics of LP Gas

  • flammable
  • usually stored as a liquid under pressure. When released into the atmosphere at any temperature above its boiling point (-42ºC for propane and 0ºC for butane) it will change from liquid to vapour
  • causes frostbite on bare skin
  • heavier than air
  • in both its liquid and vapour states, it is colourless and odourless
  • considered to be non-toxic, but may have some anaesthetic effect if inhaled in high concentrations

Safety tips

  • Always follow manufacturer's directions when using LP Gas appliances.
  • Ensure connections are tight before operating equipment. If there is a leak, turn off and do not operate until the leak is fixed.
  • If a leak has occurred, LP Gas will settle in low spots such as cellars or drains as it is heavier than air. Ventilate these areas well.
  • Do not overfill cylinders as LP Gas expands as the temperature rises and the container could become over-pressurised.
  • Keep cylinders upright, even when empty to ensure the pressure relief valve can operate effectively.
  • Ensure the relief valve is pointed away from the structure supporting the cylinder, in case the relief valve operates and the discharge ignites.
  • Protect cylinders from direct sun. If, on extremely hot days, the relief valve operates, cool the cylinder with water.
  • When using a gas barbecue or other LP Gas equipment outdoors, be sure the area is cleared of any ground fuel.
  • Where possible secure portable cylinders.

If a leak or a fire occurs when using LP Gas equipment, call 000 to request assistance from the CFS.

Farmers need to take precautions to ensure that every item of equipment on their farm, which generates heat in one form or another, is in good working order. That it is not likely to ignite crops or other flammable substances during farming operations.

You need to check that:

  • All farm machinery and vehicle engines are free from any mechanical defects that could cause a fire.
  • An efficient knapsack spray and rake or shovel is carried ready for use. A 9 litre water extinguisher can be carried as an alternative.
  • Stationary engines, including generators are operated within a 4 metre clearance of all flammable material.
  • Any internal combustion engine must also have an exhaust system where
    • All engine exhaust emitted by the engine or vehicle leaves through the system
    • The system is designed to prevent the escape of burning material from the system
    • The system is designed to prevent heated parts of the system from coming into contact with flammable material
    • Engine exhaust emitted by a turbocharged engine, as a waste gate will be taken to leaves through the exhaust system of the engine or vehicle
    • The system is in good working order
  • When using a stationary engine, if no one is present while it is operating, the area around it must be cleared of all flammable material for a distance of 4 metres. If an operator is present when the engine is in use, they must have a knapsack (or water extinguisher) and a rake or shovel available.

Save crops through equipment maintenance

All farm machinery needs to be regularly maintained and serviced during the summer months to protect crops and machinery.

  • Keep the spark arrester clean and in good order.
  • Check the exhaust system for emission of sparks.
  • Remove dry grass/stubble/chaff/straw caught in machinery particularly near the exhaust system before operating.
  • Replace twisted wire on exhaust systems with clamps to prevent flammable material getting caught and causing a fire.
  • Keep machinery clean of oil and grease and lubricate regularly to prevent overheating of bearings and other parts.
  • Keep battery terminals and all electrical wiring clean and tight.
  • Regularly check that the knapsack spray pump is in proper working order.
  • Inspect fuel lines and tank daily for leaks.
  • Check wheel brake adjustments to prevent drag and friction heating.

Rotary mowers or slashers used in stubble retention practices can start bushfires through a combination of sparks from the blades striking stones and contact with the vegetation being cut.

We advise that mowers, especially rotary types should not be used in dry grass, stubble or crops on days when there is the chance of fires starting and spreading.

Contact your local council Fire Prevention Officer to get a copy of the local Code of Practice for Mowing and Slashing in your council area. Should a fire start and escape during slashing, the operator may be liable to a fine of up to $5,000 and face possible litigation from any affected neighbour.

When using a mower or slasher, chain saw, brush cutter or edger during the Fire Danger Season you must comply with the Fire and Emergency Services Act 2005 by either:

  • clearing a 4 metre area of all flammable material right around the area to be cut, or
  • having a knapsack or extinguisher and a rake or shovel on hand.

Any tractor powered by an internal combustion engine must also have an exhaust system where:

  • All engine exhaust emitted by the engine or vehicle leaves through the system.
  • The system is designed to prevent the escape of burning material from the system.
  • The system is designed to prevent heated parts of the system from coming into contact with flammable material.
  • The system is in good working order.

Engine exhaust emitted by a turbo charged engine, as a waste gate will be taken to leave through the exhaust system of the engine or vehicle.

Smoke caused by burning off may have an adverse impact on neighbouring areas. These impacts may include damage to nearby crops and health and safety concerns for nearby communities.

To minimise the risk of adverse impacts from smoke it is important to consider the following things before undertaking a burn off:

  • Wet and damp vegetation will cause more smoke, therefore it is important to ensure vegetation is sufficiently dry to reduce the production of smoke.
  • Various weather conditions can cause smoke to remain low or travel further, it is therefore important to consider the weather, including wind direction before undertaking a burn off.

It is important to act in good faith using best available information to safely plan your burn off and communicate with neighbours who may be affected.

The CFS Smoke Management Policy and the PIRSA Broadacre Burn-Off Smoke Management Guidelines provide details on how to mitigate the risks posed by smoke from burning off, including recommendations to reducing the risk of unharvested grapevine crops being affected by smoke from burn offs.