Neighborly help after combine goes up in flames

Kevin Barlow
Herald & Review
In this Oct. 2018 photo, the burned out hulk of Ronald Wickenhauser's combine rests along side  a field of soybeans after a fire destroyed the implement Saturday, Oct. 20, 2018, west of Wapella, Ill. Wickenhauser was burned in the incident and his neighbors helped him harvest the rest of his soybeans.

WAPELLA, Ill. (AP) - As the wife of a farmer, Kathie Wickenhauser of Wapella knows the dangers of the fall harvest.

Almost daily, somewhere in Central Illinois, a combine catches fire in the middle of a field. On Oct. 20, it happened to her husband, Ron, also known as Gene.

"It was very scary and we are very, very lucky," she said. "I said from the beginning that he must have had an angel pushing him out the door, because if he had been in there much longer, it would have been a lot worse."

About 3:30 p.m. Saturday, Gene Wickenhauser was harvesting soybeans about four miles west of Wapella off of Green Valley Road. It was very windy, and it's likely that at some point, a spark ignited some dust.

"By the time he could get out, it was pretty much engulfed," said Gene's son, Robert Wickenhauser.

Gene Wickenhauser suffered burns on the left side of his body, including his leg, arm and some on his face. His grandson, Austin Winckenhauser, was working on the other side of the field, saw the fire and immediately headed to the scene.

"He didn't waste any time," Kathie Wickenhauser said. "He loaded him in a truck and transported him to (Warner Hospital & Health Services) Clinton."

In this Oct. 2018 photo, Crop adjusters attempt to determine the value of a small amount of  unharvested soybeans that were partially burned when Ronald Wickenhauser's combine caught fire on Saturday, Oct. 20, 2018, west of Wapella, Ill. Wickenhauser was burned in the incident and his neighbors helped him harvest the rest of his soybeans.

The Wapella Fire Department responded to the scene, but by that time, some of the crops were burning. Crews from Clinton, Kenney and Waynesville responded, too, and helped save the rest of the field. The combine was destroyed.

In the emergency room at Warner Hospital & Health Services in Clinton, Gene Wickenhauser received initial treatment for the wounds, but was later transferred to the Regional Burn Center at Memorial Medical Center in Springfield. There, doctors reported he had first- and second-degree burns on about 15 percent of his body. The burns to the hand were the most serious, his wife said.

"He is a more of a recuperate-at-home type of guy, and they treated his wounds and showed my mother how to take care of them," Robert Wickenhauser said. "So he was ready to leave pretty quickly, and they asked her if she was up to taking care of him, and she said she was, so he returned home late Sunday afternoon."

By the time they did, more angels had arrived, Kathie Wickenhauser said.

Neighboring farmers had finished harvesting the field, which included about another 90 acres and the other remaining field, closer to Clinton, of about 60 acres of beans.

"Thank God for friends," was the message from Gene Wickenhauser.

"I am not usually at a loss for words," Robert Wickenhauser said. "There were about 16 people or so, that helped out. When people come out to help you like that, you are just humbled. Nowadays, you don't realize how good you have it.

"You think people don't care, but they show you that the farming community around here, sticks together."

A portion of the field was damaged by the fire, and insurance adjusters were at the site on the Monday following the fire, estimating the cost of the damage.

But the work that was done to harvest the crop will forever be appreciated, Kathie Wickenhauser said.

"That made us feel blessed, truly blessed," she said. "People need to quit taking friends for granted, because you forget how wonderful they are. They just all showed up, took over and got it all done in one day.

"They are great people. Small communities are great," she continued. "People don't understand how wonderful they are. That wouldn't have happened in a big city."