Spontaneous combustion sends another hay load up in flames

Emergency services were quickly on the scene and handled the situation efficiently, the truck driver says. Photo courtesy of Fire and Rescue NSW.
Emergency services were quickly on the scene and handled the situation efficiently, the truck driver says. Photo courtesy of Fire and Rescue NSW.

Woolongong-based Donald Cole has been driving for more than 40 years and had heard stories of loads of hay bursting into flames for no apparent reason, but considered them 'old wives' tales'.

He now knows better, after his B-Double load went up in flames in minutes on Friday night, on the New England Highway just north of the old Sunnyside Railway Bridge, 12 kilometres north of Tenterfield.

As a result of the blaze the highway was blocked for around five hours, certainly inconveniencing travellers but the outcome could have been much worse if he hadn't pulled over where he did.

Police told him if he'd unknowingly continued into Tenterfield he could have set the town on fire (so soon after the September 6 scare). As is was, when he did stop he actually reversed back away from some trees so as not to set off a bushfire and risk nearby properties.


Mr Cole was delivering a load of 56 large square bales of sorghum hay from a property between Nebo and Dingo in Queensland, back to a Glen Innes farmer, when the drama unfolded.

He doesn't have a figure on how much the load was worth, but said "a lot of money". He said his boss is now wrangling with the insurance side of matters.

Mr Cole was heading south unaware of any issues when a car heading towards him flashed their lights. Initially he thought "speed camera" but the driver pointed towards his load.

Looking in the rear-view mirror he saw one of the tie-down straps dangling off the side of the rear trailer.

"There was a bit of smoke, but by the time I pulled over it was up in flames," he said.

The other driver turned around and followed him to help and they both called Tripe-0. Mr Cole was impressed with the speed in which Fire and Rescue arrived on the scene, along with other emergency services.

"The locals and emergency services, they were so quick and precise," he said.

In the meantime he was trying to uncouple the rear trailer from the front one, to save even part of the load, but despite just a slight wind the flames quickly came towards him and he had to abandon that effort.

He did manage, however, to disconnect the prime mover and it is undamaged.

"The two trailers are a bit second-hand," he said.

"In 7-10 minutes the whole load was gone. I still don't understand to this day how it happened.

"The fire brigade said spontaneous combustion, starting at the bottom, but the hay was not too green."

He's full of praise for Tenterfield Police sergeant James Bowden on how he handled the situation, and especially for nearby residents Cowboy and Sue who took him in, fed him and let him have a hot shower before he returned to the truck around 3.30am.

"You wouldn't get that in the city," he said.

In the end he remained on site until Sunday, helping with the cleanup and loading the two trailers onto a drop-deck from Sydney.

His boss has now given him some well-earned time off, saying he's had enough excitement for a while.

For anyone considering collecting the remains of the hay that still lie beside the highway, don't both as it's full of fire retardant.