Farmers fear 'real danger' of fire due to dry conditions in southern Alberta

Tinder-dry conditions in southern Alberta have farmers taking precautions to avoid accidentally igniting fires when harvesting crops, says the Alberta Federation of Agriculture.

Worries of losing crops to flames are adding to a stressful harvest season for farmers

Hot temperatures and lack of rain have led to tinder-dry conditions on southern Alberta farms. (Dave Gilson/CBC)

He's been farming for most of his life, and Lynn Jacobson says this is one of the worst years for lack of rain that he can remember.

Jacobson, president of the Alberta Federation of Agriculture, says conditions are tinder-dry on many farms, including his own in the southern Alberta hamlet of Enchant, northeast of Lethbridge.

That's why farmers are taking precautions to avoid accidentally igniting fires when harvesting crops, he says.

"Right now, it's extremely dry, so anything can cause a fire," said Jacobson, who runs a 1,400-acre operation. "It is a real danger, and this year is worse than other years."

Jacobson said he knows at least one farmer who has already had a fire in his fields this year after a mechanical issue with a combine sparked a blaze.

Lynn Jacobson, who farms near Enchant, Alta., says tinder-dry conditions in southern Alberta have farmers harvesting with caution because 'anything can cause a fire.' (CBC)

"I have a friend who was harvesting rye … and before they could get [the fire] controlled, they lost over 20 acres of crop, just bang, just like that."

When harvesting crops, Jacobson said some farmers are strategically placing tractors and other machinery in their fields to act as firewalls in case of flames, adding that wind in the area causes fire to spread "so fast you can't hardly catch it with a truck."

'We do need rain sometime'

Calgary has had about 140 millimetres of rain this summer, an amount that Jacobson said makes him envious.

Jacobson said Alberta farms further north are fairing better than those in the south but conditions are still dry provincewide.

In a good year, Jacobson said, he can usually count on harvesting between 30 and 50 bushels of grain per acre. This year, he said, he expects that number to be cut by more than half.

Lynn Jacobson says farming machinery can cause fields to catch fire. In this picture from 2016, firefighters attend to a combine fire near Hendon, Sask. (Facebook)

"Some of our dry land and pastures, now we're looking at maybe 20 [bushels per acre] on the high side," Jacobson said, adding many fields will yield only "10 bushels an acre."

Jacobson said many farmers will have to dip into their crop insurance and take advantage of safety-net programs this year.

The drought has farmers looking at other options to recoup some costs from lost crops, including farming winter wheat and planting different crops.

But Jacobson said winter farming also comes with challenges related to rain.

"One hold back on [farming winter wheat] is that if we don't get any rain in September ... they can seed [fields] but they might not get any germination on it. So that's a factor, too. So we do need rain sometime in here."

The Canadian Farmers' Almanac predicts warm weather continuing into the fall and a moderate snowfall this winter.

With files from CBC Calgary News at 6