Lessons learned from field fires

So you think you’re covered if your field catches fire at harvesttime. You have crop insurance. You also have an umbrella policy for your farming operation. What if your neighbor’s combine catches his field on fire and flames jump to your field? You think your loss will be covered by your neighbor’s liability insurance. Think again; it may not be.

Several farmers learned that lesson after a fire raged through fields west of Kanawha in Hancock County late last September. It was a scary experience. But the real story is the insurance adventure that accompanies these events.

Field fires in north-central and northwest Iowa were fairly common last fall. With extremely dry conditions and windy days, corn and soybean crops dried fast and were waiting for the combines. When fires began breaking out in late September and early October, fire and sheriff departments in several counties issued advisories asking farmers to keep combines out of fields on the windiest days.

Key Points

Field fires caused extensive damage to crops in some parts of Iowa last fall.

Many farmers found out they weren’t fully covered by their insurance policies.

Some also discovered their neighbor’s liability insurance didn’t cover losses.


Sept. 29 was one of those days, recalls David Johnson, who farms west of Kanawha. Fields were tinder-dry, with wind blowing 40 to 50 mph and gusts up to 60 mph. Except for the wind, it would have been a perfect day for harvesting.

A spark from a combine ignited a soybean field on fire on a neighbor’s farm. Embers blew into a cornfield, and fueled by the strong wind, the fire then raced field to field. The big fire was called in to the Kanawha Fire Department at 1:45 p.m. Before it was over at around 6 p.m., about 240 acres of corn and soybeans were charred or burned up. At one point the fire stretched two miles wide and about a mile long before firefighters got it under control.

Policies are all different

Ten fire departments fought the blaze. Local farmers assisted by disking ground to create windbreaks. The fire barely missed two 2,400-head hog buildings and came right up to two farmsteads. One was the Johnson family’s place.

“That was a day I’d like to forget, but never will,” says David. “Over 80 acres of our corn was burned, but miraculously our house and farm buildings all survived intact, and no one was injured.” His son, Josh, ended up with 52 acres of corn burned. For neighbors Paul Smidt, it was 43 acres, and Kelly Walk, it was 67.3 acres.

“We thought the liability insurance carried by the neighbor on whose farm the fire started would cover us,” says David. “But within a week the claim representative for that insurance company denied any liability in this event.”

The Johnsons are insured by a different company, and David was paid by crop insurance and by his farm’s umbrella policy. Josh was paid by crop insurance only. Smidt was paid by crop insurance and some from his blanket policy. Walk was paid by crop insurance only. However, these payments didn’t cover all the losses involved. A key point with this fire is that the burden has fallen totally on the victims; it’s their insurance policies that paid whatever payments were made.

The fire blew through so fast it burned husks and leaves off, but left some stalks standing with ears on them. The Johnsons harvested that corn, averaging 67 bushels per acre. Where fire didn’t go through, corn averaged 200 bushels per acre or more. So after harvesting, these farmers had about 134 bushels of corn on the ground, tilled into the soil. Not only was it a loss in revenue at $6 a bushel, but also fallen ears came back as volunteer corn this year.

Coverage quickly maxes out

The fire messed up crop rotations. Where fields were rotated to beans this year, volunteer corn must be controlled — an added cost. Where farmers intended to plant corn on corn, they couldn’t due to volunteer corn. They had to plant beans instead.

One corn-on-corn farmer who had inadequate insurance coverage is in litigation to replace lost revenue. Normally, where he plants corn on corn, he applies hog manure. Because he had to plant beans this year, the farmer was unable to use the manure and had to give it away.

While the farmers did receive some payment from their own insurance, they maxed out that coverage. If anything more had burned, they wouldn’t have been covered. For the Johnsons, the fire was about to enter an additional 160-acre field of corn before it was snuffed out. Smidt says if the fire would have entered fields to the south, it would have gone a long way because dry cornfields stretched for miles.

Many farmers are unaware of their exposure in an event like this, these four farmers say. With another dry harvest shaping up, it would help everyone — farmers, insurance companies and agents — to talk about this topic now so they have a better understanding of what provisions their policies contain. “Knowing what I do now, I wish someone would have presented me with this knowledge beforehand,” says David Johnson. He has modified his coverage with one of several insurance tools to cover such an event.

These fires do happen, and farmers don’t like to stop harvesting, even temporarily. “Last fall’s crops were drying so fast farmers didn’t dare stop combining, even though common sense said you should,” he notes. “Everyone has to be careful and be aware of what it can do to your neighbors.”

Check your insurance policy

Farmers affected by the Kanawha-area fire learned several things other farmers may not realize about insurance coverage. First and foremost, federal crop insurance is only good if the fire has a natural cause, such as lightning.

“Also, something fairly new is that with some companies you can add a rider to your crop hail insurance policy,” says farmer Paul Smidt, who sells crop insurance. With the company whose insurance he sells, it’s a fire policy you can buy for 60 days. You choose the day you want the coverage to start.

Say you want it to start Sept. 15. You’ll have coverage until Nov. 15, and you won’t have to buy it up until harvesttime, so you can see how the fall is shaping up in terms of dryness. “The No. 1 thing is to think ahead of harvest about the possibility of field fires occurring,” says Smidt. “If you have a fire, will you be covered under the policy you have now? Do you need to make some changes?”

07121602AA.tif

GOOD ADVICE: Farmers (from left) Paul Smidt, Kelly Walk, David Johnson and Josh Johnson say you should check your fire coverage with your insurance agent. Your crop loss may not be covered if there is a field fire. Charred ears, volunteer corn and a damaged windbreak are reminders of last fall’s wildfire in their neighborhood.

This article published in the July, 2012 edition of WALLACES FARMER.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2012.