‘Substantial’ crop loss could have been worse
But for the actions of a farm owner and firefighters, the fire that rushed through a grain field Sept. 3 on Highway 20,5 miles west of Winthrop, could have been a lot worse.
Crews from Okanogan County Fire District 6, the U.S. Forest Service and the state Department of Natural Resources made quick work of the blaze, which started at a combine harvester in a field of emmer wheat grown by Bluebird Grain Farms.
Bluebird owner Sam Lucy and a neighbor were harvesting emmer around 1 p.m. when a sealed bearing in a belt pulley on the combine seized, starting the fire, Lucy said. The fire was contained by 3 p.m. and under full control by 4:15 p.m., according to the Central Washington Interagency Communications Center.
The fire burned 11 acres of emmer that had been cut and was lying in windrows to dry. No structures were affected by the fire, and no one was injured. Even the combine was unharmed — except for the failed bearing — and was back in service within a couple days, Lucy said.
The highway was closed in both directions for 45 minutes, due to smoke blowing over the roadway.
“We are, of course, extremely grateful for the quick response of the local District 6,” Lucy said. “It sounds like they and the Forest Service were there about the same time.” Lucy also acknowledged the efforts of DNR firefighters.
“They [all three agencies)] were on it,” he said.
Lucy said he routinely checks the bearings on his combine using an infrared sensor, to make sure none of them are overheating. He had performed this inspection the morning of the fire.
“Everything checked out fine,” he said.
Half of harvest lost
After the fire, Lucy returned to the field and picked up the windrows of emmer that hadn’t burned. About half of the harvest from that particular field was lost, he said.
Emmer is an ancient, specialty grain that Bluebird Grain Farms grows organically. The wheat has a high market value, Lucy said.
“It’s not going to put us out of business, but it was a substantial hit,” he said. “But at the same time, it’s a small tax to pay for what could have happened.”
Only a half-dozen windrows lay between the spot where the fire was stopped and an expanse of uncut einkorn to the west. Bluebird had planted the einkorn, another ancient specialty grain, on the west end of the field, which the farm leases from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.
“It was standing and tall,” Lucy said of the einkorn. “If [the fire] had gone into 4-foot-high dry straw, that would not have been pretty.”
Fire District 6 gave a nod to Lucy for his efforts to keep the fire contained. Lucy got into his tractor and, using a disc harrow, dug a fire line along the south end of the fire.
“He was running along the scratch line that we had in,” said Max Jones, volunteer public information officer for Fire District 6. “He saved everybody a lot of time.”
The first engine to respond from Fire District 6 prevented the fire from crossing over the highway to the north, Jones said. The wind was alternately pushing the fire to the south and toward the highway, all along blowing up-valley.
The driver of that first engine used a front-mounted water gun to knock down flames that had reached the south shoulder of the highway and “saved the day,” Jones said.
“If that had crossed the highway and gone up the hillside, we don’t have any access to that area, all the way around,” she said.
“We’re most grateful for that,” Lucy said, regarding firefighters’ ability to keep the fire contained to his field. “Just the thought of this fire lighting the valley on fire — that would have been a really tough one.”