The Western United States isn't the only place where wildfires destroy homes and businesses. It happens in Missouri, too. Someone clearing out a garden sets fire to a pile of leaves, the wind picks up and before he can react, the fire has escaped into woods or grassland, threatening neighbors' property. Sometimes lives can be lost.
Unlike the West, where fires are most likely during the dry months of late summer and autumn, Missouri's fire season arrives early in the year. The threat is greatest in years when drought conditions prevail. That is the case in northwest Missouri this year.
The United States Department of Agriculture's "U.S. Drought Monitor" published Feb. 24 shows abnormally dry to extremely dry conditions in the northwest corner of Missouri. However, even outside this area a few days of sunny, windy weather can turn last year's leaves and grass into tinder, waiting for a spark. Such conditions can create problems for casual burners of yard waste or rubbish and for landowners who use fire to manage their land.
"Because fire has been part of Missouri's natural seasonal cycle for thousands of years, it is a great tool for managing native grasses and wildlife habitat," said George Hartman, the Missouri Department of Conservation's fire ecologist. "Striking a match is so easy to do, it's easy to forget what a big responsibility it carries."
Hartman, whose job includes striking a match several times every year, said anyone who wants to use fire as a management tool owes it to himself and his neighbors to learn how to do it safely. Information about how to conduct controlled burns is available from private land conservationists at local Conservation Department or Natural Resources Conservation Service offices. These offices can also offer advice about weather conditions before a planned burn.
Forestry education coordinator Bruce Palmer said a significant number of Missouri wildfires are set by arsonists. He said motives for setting fires range from simple mischief to smoldering resentments against neighbors or government agencies. It is enough of a problem that the Conservation Department, the Conservation Federation of Missouri and the Mark Twain National Forest have set up a toll-free Operation Forest Arson hot line, 800/392-1111, for people to report suspicious wildfires.
Palmer offered the following advice to avoid starting a wildfire accidentally:
* Burn on days with low wind and within three days of the last rain.
* Notify local fire officials when you intend to burn.
* 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 a few years.
Palmer said Missouri's fire danger drops off quickly as trees leaf out and grass greens up. This usually happens in mid to late April. Until then, he said, people should be especially careful about how they handle fire.