While August rains followed by a cool, cloudy, wet September created a series of anomalies in the 2017 cotton crop, its resulting low micronaire cotton ignited a firestorm from the field to the cotton gin. Growers to ginners to equipment dealers testify to the dramatic increase of fires in 2017.
“It’s unreal how many fires we’ve had,” says Aaron Hendricks, gin manager, Floydada Cooperative Gin, Floydada, Texas. “We’ve had some static fires that we don’t normally have.”
Plains Cotton Growers executive Vice President Steve Verett says there’s no doubt that there were more fires last season. “It was very dry and when you have a low micronaire year on cotton there’s a lot more fuzz just flying around that accumulates on the harvesters. The low mic cotton is significantly more flammable than when we don’t have the presence of that. And so all of those things combined together created a volatile situation and we just saw more fires.”
Static electricity is to blame for a fire Hendricks says went through his gin. “The machine choked up, we had a bunch of cotton in it and then all of a sudden it blew,” says Hendricks. “It got hot so fast and built up so much pressure in that piece of equipment, that it blew the lids off of it.” Thankfully, no one was hurt and no significant damage was caused to the gin, he says.
To minimize the risk of fires, Hendricks ginning crew is checking the gin equipment more thoroughly. “The guys on the gins stands are constantly checking everything, more hands on. We’ll take a gin stand out and clean it and make sure nothing is wrong. We’ve also made a few little adjustments to the equipment on the computer where if a gin stand gets a wad it kicks it out quicker.”
In the Panhandle at Adobe Walls Gin where General Manager Jerrell Key is expecting to gin at least 275,000 bales of cotton, he says they’ve seen an increase but nothing horrendous. “Mainly, this cotton is so dry. I think it’s static. We use a lot of manure around here so we get a lot of rocks in our fields.”
Where Key says he has seen a definite increase, is in cotton stripper fires. “Part of the other problem that we’re having is that we’ve got so many new acres and this is traditionally wheat pasture country, so they’re picking up things like wire, electric fence posts. Strippers run right on the ground and combines don’t. So, we’re cleaning up some fields,” he says.
While there’s been speculation as to whether or not a certain type of stripper has caused many of the fires, CEO Joe Hurst, of Hurst Farm Supply, says they’ve had fires on all cotton strippers— basket and round module machines alike — an issue he also says is fueled by the low mic cotton, dry weather and other factors that have ignited the blazes.
“If you talk to people that were getting off their machines at night, as they’re climbing down that ladder, it just looked like a lightning storm with their hands because static electricity was just going,” says Hurst. “We were out almost daily on basket machines with fires. I’ve got a good customer in Ralls, who told me, ‘Joe, I’ve been driving a 7460 basket machine since they came out and I’ve had one fire. This year (2017), I had nine.’ It was just the conditions and the quality of the cotton. It was crazy.” he says.
More times than not, when there is a machine fire it’s caused by flint rock or big weeds grinding on the burr extractor, says Hurst, who hosts a stripper owner/operator clinic each September where they focus a large part of their time on fire prevention and what to do in case of a fire.
“One of my customers, that has a round module machine, had a fire. He got his bale out without having any fire damage, but when he got up there and was examining what caused the fire, which we encourage everyone to do, he found a 4x12 inch u-bolt that was up in his burr extractor. Metal grinding on metal is going to create some sparks and then with the flammable cotton that we had this year, there it goes.”
Often when a fire ignites in a stripper basket, harvest crews either on the module builder or the tractor pulling the boll buggy can spot smoke and quickly notify the stripper operator. Then it’s a matter of turning where the wind is coming out of the right-hand side of the machine, raising the basket and dumping it out, says Hurst. “It takes 30 seconds.”
“When you’re out there with a CS 690, the round module machine, you’re usually out there by yourself and there’s nobody to tell you that you are on fire. But once you do realize that you are on fire, there’s account after account, where these people have run through the process of clearing their accumulator, wrapping that module and dumping it out, not hurting the machine at all.”
To help notify operators more quickly if a fire does ignite, John Deere is working in cooperation with Argus, to develop a detection and suppression system, Hurst says.
“It’s a new challenge that we have,” says Verett, who ran a picker-baler this season. “But I’m confident that John Deere will have something to help us detect and extinguish any fire situation in these machines that we have.”