Disclosure: My brothers are Montana farmers. They own or lease farmland in the Manhattan, Toston, and Townsend areas and grow seed potatoes, grains, lentils, etc. The incident in this article occurred last Saturday (8/12) on leased property near Townsend where my brother (Mitchell Foth) was harvesting peas.

Hot and dry conditions have been the theme for the past couple of weeks across much of Montana, as we've been pushing triple digits around the state. There is an elevated fire danger for today and Friday, according to the latest info from the National Weather Service Billings, as winds seem to be picking up around the Treasure State, pushing in a cooler front this weekend.

Graphic courtesy NWS, Billings
Graphic courtesy NWS, Billings

A spark in the field can quickly turn into a nightmare.

They were nearing the final stretch of harvesting the 3,000-acre plot of peas on Saturday afternoon when another employee working in the field noticed sparks and smoke coming from the back end of the harvester. Foth believes they must have picked up a rock that got lodged in the discharge section of the combine, where metal chopping blades were sparking on the rock like someone flicking a giant Bic lighter.

Credit: Mitch Foth, used with permission
Credit: Mitch Foth, used with permission/Canva background.

Foth quickly stopped the combine and jumped out with a fire extinguisher in an attempt to put out the stubble that had begun igniting on the ground. At first, they thought they might be able to get the situation under control and were able to initially extinguish the fire on the ground. Unfortunately, it wasn't enough.

The expensive combine had already begun burning out of control.

With a now-empty fire extinguisher in hand, Mitch recounted how his next move was to try to save his brand-new, $100,000 head on the $400,000 combine. However, the flames were quickly engulfing the harvester and he said he could hear things starting to pop and sizzle as he attempted to detach the head unit. Hundreds of gallons of diesel along with hydraulic fluid and other combustibles were about to add serious fuel to the blaze.

Stock photo by Canva
Stock photo by Canva

An adrenaline-pumping experience.

One employee scrambled to disc a dirt barrier around the fire, which was rapidly spreading across the field in gusty winds, while Foth and other workers raced to move a half-dozen semis and grain trucks that were staged on the field to safety.

A sheriff was first to arrive on the scene, and eventually, fire trucks from various agencies were able to contain the blaze to about 100 acres. Even a helicopter was dispatched to the site. The property sits near state land and the edge of the mountains on the bench east of Townsend, which could have been a real disaster had the fire continued.

Foth said they're thankful no one got hurt. The equipment and other losses are insured, but it's still a setback. And a frightening reminder of just how fast a few sparks can turn into a really big deal, real quick.

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