Illustration by Clara Nicoll

Farming life: A farm on fire

During the heatwave, I had to run to the rescue of a neighbour whose crops were alight
September 8, 2022

The 19th of July was the hottest day ever recorded in the UK, with temperatures exceeding 40°C. At 2pm the day after, I could smell smoke. I began to panic, but a scan of my fields reassured me that it wasn’t coming from our farm. The wind was blowing from our neighbour’s field, where a mile away an electricity cable—sagging in the unprecedented heat—had dipped into a hedgerow tree and started a fire. 

Our neighbour was working nearby, so our young farmhand Joe and I quickly located the blaze and raced to help, hoping to save the hundreds of acres of unharvested crops that would be quickly consumed by the fire. It was scary: hearts racing, nerves on edge, all focused on one thing. We had hitched our cultivator (which we typically use to turn over soil) to the biggest tractor. We bounced across fields and smashed down a gate post that was too narrow to pass, before tilling the ground beside the blaze, creating a firebreak of tilled earth. Fire can move through crops faster than you can run, but ploughed earth cannot burn. This simple action is the best way to stop a farm fire in its tracks.

Fire remains the biggest threat to the harvest field

The fire brigade arrived in just 10 minutes—and, most importantly, at the right location, as we’d given them the precise grid reference using the What3words app (which describes your phone’s co-ordinates by labelling them with a unique, three-word combination). They quickly brought more than 100 metres of flaming hedgerow under control, telling us that we were likely a few minutes—possibly just seconds—from a much more disastrous outcome. We were only too aware of the risk to thousands of pounds’ worth of crops, barns and homes—and of course to lives. 

Fire remains the biggest threat to the harvest field. There’s rarely been a day during the harvest this year in July and August when I haven’t seen black smoke somewhere on the horizon, marking a combine harvester on fire, or the white smoke of burning straw and harvest fields. It is terrifying. 

That’s why I start my day by using an air hose to blow dust off my combine in the cool of the early morning. It may take up to an hour to reach every crevice in the engine—but it’s essential not to miss any place where straw might gather, heat up and begin to smoulder. I always answer my phone when driving in the field, in case someone is calling to tell me that I’m on fire and haven’t noticed. 

Many years ago, I was teaching our then 17-year-old farmhand to drive the combine. I told him that he needed to be constantly alert and that his sense of smell was the most important tool he had. When driving a combine for up to 16 hours a day, your nose should be primed to pick up a whiff of rubber from a belt slipping, or the distinctive smell of hot engine oil. I may sound a little alarmist, but we’ve had near misses on occasion and that’s close enough for me. 

In Australia, where they’re accustomed to such conditions, harvest is banned when extremes of heat and wind coincide, but in the UK we haven’t had to learn that same caution, as farmers and members of the public. We discard cigarettes, light Chinese lanterns and use disposable barbecues, but I hope that this summer has made us aware of what could happen. I hope that all the drivers and farmhands emerge from their two months of isolation in their combine cabins and go home safely to rest, before planting the crops for next year and beginning the cycle all over again.