Dry air, cotton quality creates risk for costly module fires

Modules smoldering northeast of New Deal (Source: KCBD)
Modules smoldering northeast of New Deal (Source: KCBD)
Updated: Dec. 11, 2017 at 5:48 PM CST
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Modules smoldering northeast of New Deal (Source: KCBD)
Modules smoldering northeast of New Deal (Source: KCBD)
Modules smoldering northeast of New Deal (Source: KCBD)
Modules smoldering northeast of New Deal (Source: KCBD)

Thousands of dollars are going up in flames as cotton modules catch fire across the South Plains.

Experts say the modules, valued around $4,000 each, are prone to sparking due to this dry fall and winter, along with low micronaire cotton quality seen north of Lubbock.

"It's a little bit finer fibers which is a little bit harder to pack, leaves a little bit more air space within those modules," Plains Cotton Growers, Inc. Director of Policy Analysis and Research Shawn Wade said. "When you have just a little hot spot in a module it can more readily switch from just a smoldering spot into a fire. We are seeing a little bit of that, a combination of just the dry conditions and the quality. Hopefully we'll get through this situation as we get a little closer to Christmas."

Wade said this year has been above average in terms of production, leaving more modules awaiting transfer to the gin for production. He tells us harvest time is a dangerous time with moving equipment. During that process from field to module to gin, machinery can spark, creating a smoldering within the module. Fires can also be started by static electricity or even passing vehicles. Those modules are valued anywhere from $3,000 to $4,000.

"A lot of times they will have some insurance coverage at the gin but there is a significant deductible usually associated with that per occurrence basis, per module basis," Wade said. "Even though they do have some protection from fire, there is a significant economic loss, up to 50 percent of the value of a module in some instances, so that's all they will have protection on. It makes a big impact on the farm, on the yields that we ultimately get off that farm. It's something we try to minimize as much as possible."

It's been 33 days since the Lubbock area has had measurable precipitation. A La Nina weather pattern has developed after one of the wettest summers on record, according to Lubbock National Weather Service Warning Coordination Meteorologist Jody James.

"We get the days where it's breezy. We get the low humidities and that further dries out the grassy fuels and other things like the cotton modules," James said. "It kind of feeds on itself in a sense and we're in a La Nina winter which doesn't help things either. It looks like for the time being it's going to continue that way."

While difficult to determine several weeks away, James says the next significant change in the forecast may be around Christmas but that still doesn't guarantee precipitation.

"It may be a bit of light snow but that's kind of way out there," James said. "We are hoping that it comes along. Any precipitation at this point would be good."

Both experts urge people to be aware of their actions and refrain from any activity that may start a fire.

"There are regions that had a lot of rain, especially up toward the Panhandle that have knee high grass," James said. "Grasses are fuels that dry out very quickly. If we keep having this dry weather in those areas, we could be facing a lot of problems in the next month or two with fire weather potential."

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