29 Jun Megan: It only takes a spark
As our convoy pulled out of the truck stop in Colby last Friday morning, I thought about how easy the move was going to be given the overcast sky and cool weather. Things seemed to be looking up after a rough week with my swollen eye and spider bite. It was only a little over 100 miles to our destination of Imperial, Nebraska. I lead the convoy with the pickup and header until we reached the town of Hamlet, about 25 miles from Imperial. Mom and Dad were working way north of Hamlet so we stopped to break up our convoy and send the two CR’s and headers their direction. Since it was a long move out to the field we decided not to unload the grain cart and just park it in Imperial.
I recently mentioned to Dad that in all these years I have actually never hauled an oversize load. I’ve trucked with grain trailers countless times and helped hook up combine trailers but with the way all of our moves have worked out I’ve never pulled an oversize load going down the highway. Dad decided this would be an excellent opportunity for me to haul the tractor and grain cart, so Danny and I traded loads. I did a quick walk around the rig and saw no apparent problems at that time. As I climbed into the semi, pulled onto the highway and began slowly grabbing gears I realized how nervous I was. In an attempt to calm down I told myself I would be fine. I just needed to take my time, frequently check my mirrors and ensure I had correct placement on the road. Besides, from many years of working and driving in the area I knew it was a short easy drive into Imperial…what could go wrong?
By the time I was about 10 miles outside of Imperial I was feeling pretty confident. Suddenly, I checked in my driver mirror and saw a few tiny pieces of tread fly out from underneath my trailer. Since I didn’t have anyone in our crew following me I just assumed I had blown a tire. I knew I had to find a safe and wide area to pull my rig over and off the road while I checked my tires. Immediately, I slowed down and pulled into the closest wide spot, which ended up being a county road about a mile down the highway. After flipping on my flashers I stepped out of the semi and instantly smelled something hot. I began checking tires and found the middle axle on the driver side of the trailer to have been the cause of my stop.
Expecting to see a blown out tire this is what I found. My discovery shocked me and, quite honestly, confused me. I had been checking my mirrors frequently and had only seen a few tiny shreds of tire come off just a mile back. I kept thinking, “How could have this tire already gotten down the rim?”
All of a sudden, I saw a sheriff pull in behind the trailer with his emergency lights on. I was a bit confused and thought about everything that had transpired in the last few minutes. In my mind, I had followed protocol and safely pulled off as soon as I noticed a problem – so, perhaps, he had just stopped to see if I needed help.
As I walked back toward the sheriff, he met me with the strangest greeting I had ever heard: “Are you aware you just started a fire?” I was puzzled beyond belief and asked him what exactly he meant. He reiterated, “Do you know you just started a fire back there?” As he spoke in a firm tone he pointed in the near distance where I saw a small amount of smoke begin to billow on the horizon. Baffled by such a serious accusation I thought he must be mistaken, he had to be, right? Still very confused on how I possibly could have been involved I answered, “No, I don’t understand how I could have…I just blew out a tire and pulled over…there’s no way…” Then it clicked. I glimpsed at the bare rim of where my tire used to be and looked back at the growing smoke a few miles away. I was horrified by this new connection. Bare rim. Pavement. Sparks. Smoke. Fire.
My mind tried to process the realization that the officer was correct, that I was the one who had unknowingly started the fire. The reality of the situation crept in as several fire trucks with blaring sirens sped past us on the main highway. My head began to spin and I felt sick to my stomach. Before I could even think straight, I began to blurt out everything – about how I never heard anything, smelled anything, felt anything or saw anything before this indicating there was a problem; about how we checked the trailer tires this morning before we left, how I’ve never pulled an oversize load, how I’d only been driving for 15 minutes, how I pulled over as soon as I’d seen the tire treads and on and on. I finally finished with an apology while trying to fight back tears.
I took several deep breaths to try to clear my head so I could deal with the situation at hand. After a brief conversation with the sheriff I tried to get a hold of my parents even though cell coverage was minimal and I was out of range to reach anyone in the field on the radio. I was finally able get ahold of Dad on his cell phone to explain the situation. I learned from the sheriff that an off-duty deputy had seen the tire shred and shortly after saw sparks on the pavement; as these sparks landed in the dry grass of the ditch it caused a fire to ignite. The current 60 mph winds out of the south did not help the cause as it simply added fuel to the fire. It turned out, that just a few miles away a total of three different fires were started from these sparks caused by the bare rim on the pavement.
Finally, the sheriff declared it to be an accident and that no citation or ticket would be written. He mentioned how I followed proper protocol and explained how these types of things just happen sometimes, especially given the very dry conditions and high winds. Dad arrived and unloaded the tractor and grain cart then chained up the center axel to get more clearance between the road and rim. He slowly drove it into Imperial to get new tires for it.
With the wind blowing and not knowing how severe the fire was Mom and I headed into the local Alco in Imperial where we filled up coolers full of waters, Gatorade, and ice. Along with other supplies Mom and I headed back to the fire scene and dropped off the donation for the hard-working volunteer firefighters, feeling this was the least we could do given the circumstances.
After a couple of hours of tough fighting, the fire was finally out. Luckily, no homes were damaged and no one was injured during this time. It ended up burning some pasture ground, along with a few fences and a small stack of hay bales. With everything in the news lately about the terrible wildfires burning across the country, I truly believe it is a blessing that this fire was able to be contained and extinguished before it got out of hand. Yes, this was a terrible accident but looking at the “what ifs” it certainly could have been drastically worse.
Luckily there was a nearby creek which created a fire line for much of the area.
I do understand this was an accident but I still feel awful. On behalf of Roland Harvesting I would like to offer a sincere apology to the land owners who were affected by this misfortune. Also, I would like to give a huge thank you to the Chase County Sheriff’s department and all the volunteer firefighters in the area who responded to the call. They all worked extremely hard in hot and very windy conditions to contain the fire and keep the area burned to a minimum. These brave volunteers are so incredibly valuable to small communities as they risk their lives whenever necessary to save our houses, animals, pastures, wheat fields, and most importantly our lives. THANK YOU for all you do!
All Aboard Harvest is sponsored by High Plains Journal and Syngenta. Megan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.