Phenomenon common in agriculture
By Scott Bellile
A spontaneous combustion incident had New London firefighters extinguishing hay bales for four hours at a Cut-Off Road farm on Thursday, July 2.
Firefighters and farmers worked together just before 11 a.m. until 2:30 p.m. to put out wet hay bales that continually ignited at Hidden Creek Farm, a horse and cattle farm that produces beef. There were no injuries or structural damage, but 150 bales of hay were scorched, according to farm manager Brad Ketterhagen.
“It could have very easily been worse,” Ketterhagen said.
Ketterhagen said he smelled a strong odor in the barn where 900 bales of hay were stored. He and his workers hopped into two tractors and removed the wettest and smoldering bales from the barn.
Neighbors assisted, and the workers brought on a third tractor. Tractor drivers emerged from the barn with hay bales that firefighters then doused with water in the yard. Ketterhagen said the collaboration minimized the damage.
“I had plenty of tractors and some good-hearted people help me out for sure,” Ketterhagen said.
According to Washington State University Extension, hay becomes a fire hazard when it is stored at more than 15 percent moisture. The excess moisture, oxygen and pressure all work together to produce microbial growth and chemical change inside a hay bale.
The bale heats rapidly and may ignite when it reaches 180 to 212 degrees.
“It’s something definitely to watch for,” Ketterhagen said.
The bales that ignited were mostly new-crop hay that was assembled a month ago after a “difficult” and wet spring, Ketterhagen said.
“I think they tried their best not to bale when the hay is wet, but it must have had too much moisture when they baled their own bales,” New London fire captain Don Conat said.
Conat said New London Fire Department responds to spontaneous combustions resulting from wet hay about twice per year, indicating that it’s not a new problem locally.
Luckily farms including Hidden Creek Farm are trending toward round hay bales rather than square ones, Conat said, which although equally flammable are easier to remove from barns in emergency situations.
Ketterhagen said on July 2 he planned to monitor the hay over the Fourth of July weekend to ensure nothing reheated and sparked.
No further incidents were reported over the weekend, New London Fire Chief Bart Roloff said Monday.