What causes cotton bale fires?


LUBBOCK, Texas — There are many ways cotton can possibly catch on fire during the long process it goes through from the field to the finished product.

The cotton is typically harvested using a cotton stripper. General Manager at Lubbock Cotton Growers Jerry Butman said at this step it is possible for a rock or something similar to get stuck and spark a fire.

“Generally [it starts] from a spark,” he said. “Either a rock goes through the stripper, or possibly a piece of metal, or possibly even a weed gets stuck … and a friction fire gets started.”

Butman said the fires are slow as the spark that ignites the fire smothers in the cotton before you physically see smoke or flames.

The Director of Policy Analysis and Research with Plains Cotton Growers Shawn Wade said to let someone know if you see something that could be a cotton bale fire happening in a field.

“If you see something that certainly looks like it could be smoke or anything, especially with with those modules [cotton bales] in the field, [it’s] certainly worth letting somebody in authority know to kind of help us get a hold of those things before they get too big,” he said.

That way, the problem can be isolated to a smaller source and a much larger fire can be averted.

When a module or single bale of cotton burns, it is a big loss to farmers.

“Just a single round bale – there’s going to be around three bales in that,” Butman said. “So three bales of cotton today are up to $600 a bale. So this would be $1,800 worth [of] cotton in a single round bale today.”

Farmers harvest their cotton and set them aside for the gins to pick up. During the pick up time farmers constantly watch their bales to make sure no fires break out.

“When we’re harvesting cotton, one of the things that we’re always kind of on guard to keep an eye out for is anything that can potentially create a fire either in the harvesting machinery itself, or later on, while that cotton is stored in a module,” Butman said. “So we’re always very careful to stage them with plenty of space in between.”

The cotton bales are sometimes set in a convenient location for gins to pick them up, and most of the time, they are placed along the field border.

“The gins do a lot of monitoring. They actually have thermal cameras that they can go out and kind of scan [the bales] and they can see if there’s a hotspot building, maybe within a module,” Wade said. “And if they if they notice one that looks like there may be something going on there, they would be able – hopefully – to pick that module up and move it away from some of the other cotton.”

At that point, Wade said they will dig through the cotton bale in order to find the hotspot and get rid of it so it doesn’t pose a risk to the rest of the bale.

According to Butman and Wade, so far this year there, have not been many reports of module fires in the area. They said they are hoping the weather will continue to be good for the remainder of harvest season.

“We wish our producers and other producers around the country here — have safe and productive harvest,” Butman said.

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