margin-top: 28px; The Unlikely Times: February 2009

Saturday, February 28, 2009

Pop go the hay bales

Last month there were enormous wildfires in Australia, but as that continent bakes in the summer sun, there are other hazards. Like hay bales and entire sheds of hay exploding. Last year (2008) was "the worst season ever for spontaneous hayshed fires." [1]

It's not as sensational or mysterious as spontaneous human combustion, but it has the benefit of being verifiably real. The first article I found estimates some 400 cases of sudden hayshed fires in New South Wales alone, though it's not clear whether this is only for 2008 or for some longer period. [1] "One German study using data from an insurance company reported 304 haystack fires between 1970 and 1980, dropping to 118 between 1980 and 1990 due to the insurance company distributing 2500 hay thermometers to fire brigades since 1980." [3, quoting Wolk and Sarkar, 1993]

Oddly, it's not the driest bales that burst into flame, but ones with a moisture content around 20%. The moisture allows bacteria to thrive, and my initial impression is that the bacteria could be producing methane. However, the explosions are the result of bacteria raising the core temperature of the hay bale to 76 degrees C, and the ignition is just a reaction with oxygen. [1,2]

"The phenomena of exploding haystacks has been with mankind for as long as he has been making hay. Pliny, the Roman Philosopher wrote in 60BC, 'When the grass is cut it should be turned towards the sun and must never be stacked until it is quite dry. If this last precaution is not carefully taken a kind of vapour will be seen arising from the rick in the morning, and as soon as the sun is up it will ignite to a certainty, and so be consumed.'" [3]

It's odd that something which has been known and documented for over 2,000 years still sounds absurd and unlikely, but a lot of farming procedures and parameters are largely unknown to the general public.

1. Bizarre weather sends hay bales up in flames (, Jan 21 08)

2. Spontaneous Combustion of Hay (PDF) (Dep't of Primary Resources, South Australia - PIRSA)

3. The Case of the Exploding Haystacks: Spontaneous Combustion of Natural Products in New Zealand (Australian Biotechnology, March/April 1997)

Monday, February 16, 2009

Riding those coat tails

A few weeks ago we were watching "The Incredibles" again. One of the repeating gags in the movie is that long capes are an occupational hazard. Capes get caught in sinister machinery, leading to bad times for the superheroes wearing them.

Imagine my surprise when I found the following story in my family history research just a few nights later:

"Francis Marion Cook [...] was visiting Ann and Lincoln in Aurora, MO. He had married his daughter Melvina. Two months later he was walking down town. He was looking at a big engine. He was dressed in his preacher suit (He was a Baptist minister) with long coat tails. The tails got caught in the big flywheel. Messed him up so bad they could not ship him back, so he is buried there."

It's hard to write fiction without a grain of truth (however unlikely) creeping in.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Zombie power

I had some downtime around the holidays, but the Weird never takes a vacation.

Here's a story of mayhem on the highways. You know those elecronic billboards that are supposed to warn us of impending construction? Someone has been hacking them in Illinois and posting horror-show messages, including "ZOMBIES IN AREA! RUN!"

Just a quick note showing the perils of letting too many writers get frustrated ... while funny to some people, we really don't need MORE distractions on the road.

Source: Yahoo News