March 27, 2003

Drought Conditions Fueling Grassfires Across Region

Lives could be lost and people's homes and other property could go up in smoke unless people in northern Missouri are especially careful with fire this spring.

The March 18 issue of the United States Department of Agriculture's U.S. Drought Monitor, published weekly, shows "extreme drought" conditions in northwest Missouri in the area bounded on the east by Mercer, Grundy, Linn and Chariton counties and on the south by Carroll, Ray and Clay counties. Scotland County and its neighbors are just one level below the west at the "severe drought" level.

The Missouri Department of Conservation says the drought carries a significantly increased danger of wildfire.

"Missouri's highest risk of natural cover fires almost always comes in the early spring," said Forestry Education Coordinator Bruce Palmer. "We have lots of dry grass and leaves on the ground at that time of year. Dry, windy weather and low rainfall creates conditions favorable for wildfire. The danger drops off quickly as trees leaf out and grass greens up, but until then it's likely to be touch-and-go in northern Missouri, especially in the northwest."

On Sunday, March 23, smoke was filtering to the sky in no fewer than six different fires in Scotland County alone with the surrounding counties also experiencing wildfire problems.

The Scotland County Fire Department first went into action at 12:48 p.m. when a grassfire was reported on the Brad Wittstock property northwest of Arbela. Approximately 30 acres of CRP ground was burned before the fire was extinguished by the fire department.

As the firemen were leaving the scene at 2:15 p.m. they received a mutual-aid call from the Downing Fire Department to respond to a large grassfire in the northeast corner of Scotland County. The department sent the brush truck and the mini-pumper to assist at the scene where approximately 80 acres were burned before the blaze was finally extinguished at 3:40 p.m.

There was no rest for the weary as the remainer of the fire department rolled to a grass fire south of Bible Grove at the Eric Dunn residence at 3:40 p.m. The rural truck was the lone pumper available at the outset of the call so the two trucks were recalled from the Downing Fire scene but had to load water and refuel en route to the fire.

The majority of the work done at the Dunn farm was by hand as a dozen firemen used water backpacks and rakes to fight the fire that had spread from a burning brush pile to a CRP field and across an old corn field.

Approximately 60 acres was burned before the department was able to stop the fire just after 5:00 p.m.

All three fires the department responded to started out as controlled burns that ultimately got out of control due to the dry conditions.

Palmer said northern Missouri has been dryer than normal for more than a year. "Some parts of the state's northwest corner have hardly seen a drop of rain or a snowflake in months," he said. "Under conditions like this, an untended fire or a carelessly discarded cigarette can touch off a blaze that costs thousands of dollars to fight and may destroy homes, or even cost people's lives."

Palmer noted that while the danger of wildfires is particularly serious in northwest Missouri this spring, the rest of the state is vulnerable also. He said most wildfires get started unintentionally when someone leaves burning rubbish unattended or when a sudden gust of wind carries embers to tinder-dry fields or forests.

However, a significant number of Missouri's wildfires are the work of arsonists. He said motives for setting fires range from simple mischief to smoldering resentments against neighbors. It is enough of a problem that the Conservation Department has set up a hot line for people to report suspicious wildfires.

"We call the hot line Operation Forest Arson," said Palmer. "Almost all the arsonists we catch every year are turned in by people who don't take kindly to having their property endangered.

Operation Forest Arson, cosponsored by the Conservation Department and the Conservation Federation of Missouri, allows citizens to call toll-free 24 hours a day to report arsonists. An anonymous call to 800/392-1111 is all it takes.

"Setting brush fires isn't just a prank," said Palmer. "Firefighters put their lives in danger fighting these fires. People lose their homes, and natural-cover fires cause enormous losses of private and government resources. Everyone should be watching for chances to stop it."

Palmer offered the following advice to avoid starting a wildfire accidentally:

If you must burn, pick an overcast day when winds are calm and the humidity is high.

Notify local fire officials when you intend to burn.

Burn before 10 a.m. or after 4 p.m.

After burning, check several times to ensure the fire is out.

Keep water, rakes, wet gunny sacks and other firefighting tools at hand when burning.

Call fire officials immediately if a fire escapes.

Ask your neighbors not to burn on dry, windy days.

Teach your children to be safe with fire.

Don't burn brush piles. They make great wildlife habitat and will naturally decay in two to five years.

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