Hillsboro Fire Chief Ben Steketee was driving around recently when he noticed how close some cornfields are to homes on the edges of the city. He became concerned.
This summer’s drought has been bad news for farmers, but it also is potentially bad news for firefighters, he said.
“I see a lot of 5- and 6-foot stalks, dry as can be,” Steketee said.
Those stalks could provide a lot of fuel for a fire, and the spacing of rows gives enough room for air circulation to feed a blaze, he said.
Steketee sought information from other firefighters who have more experience with fires in cornfields. They told him that once a field catches fire, containing the fire is usually the best-case scenario.
When the risk increases because of drought, some departments in Nebraska ask farmers to keep discs hooked to a tractor on standby, ready to cut a firebreak through a field.
That would be much less practical in Marion County, because cornfields are smaller here, Steketee said. In Nebraska, many fields are more than a mile on a side, but here there is a road almost every mile, and roads work well as firebreaks.
He said local fire departments would probably have the most success fighting a cornfield fire like a controlled burn, which lets firefighters use roads as firebreaks. With the height of cornstalks, fighting the fire from the field would put firefighters in more risk, he said.
In the meantime, Steketee urges residents to be especially careful with fire near cornfields.