Wildfires have destroyed at least three homes already this year, and officials with the Missouri Department of Conservation urge Missourians to be careful with fire and take precautions to protect their property.
Assistant Chief Todd Chlanda of the Redings Mill Fire Protection District (FPD) in southwestern Missouri reported that fires destroyed two homes in his area last month.
On Feb. 16, an earth-contact home burned after the owner dumped ashes from her fireplace in nearby woods.
The resulting brush fire burned back to the earth-contact building, where it set fire to the roof. By the time the homeowner noticed the fire, it had burned her phone lines, preventing her from calling 911. The blaze burned 60 percent of the home before it could be extinguished.
Another home fire occurred Feb. 22 when the homeowners burned residual vegetation their garden, and the fire escaped, destroying their house. Another fire on Feb. 23 -- a grass fire of undetermined origin -- destroyed a home.
These were among more than 30 wild-land fires the Redings Mill FPD reported in the first two months of 2009.
Statewide, wildfires have destroyed nine homes and damaged 12 more.
Wildfire has destroyed another 22 outbuildings, such as sheds and barns this year and damaged 20 others.
Wildfires sometimes take a human toll as well.
At least one person has died as a result of wildfires this year. An 81-year-old man died of a heart attack while fighting a fire north of Diamond in Newton County in January.
"The fires we are facing this year are more difficult to contain due to two ice storms and a tornado," said Chlanda. "The fuel load is greater, and it is more difficult to put a line in around the fire because of all the limbs and trees that are down. There is a lot more work to containing a fire, more snags to drop and a lot more logs and down trees left burning inside the black. These are almost impossible to extinguish due to their location and the amount of water needed. This creates another hazard of the fire re-igniting from embers and possibly causing more damage."
Bill Altman, forestry field programs supervisor for the Missouri Department of Conservation, said similar conditions exist across much of Missouri, particularly in the southern half of the state.
"We are seeing quite a bit of wildfire activity in the southwest quarter of the state," said Altman, "from just south of Kansas City to Lake Ozark to West Plains. Other parts of the state are having fires as well, but the southwest is most active right now."
Burning can be done safely. In fact, burning can improve wildlife habitat if done under the right conditions and with professional supervision.
The Conservation Department and private landowners use carefully controlled "prescribed fire" at this and other times of year. Advance preparations -- clearing fire lines, checking fuel and weather conditions and coordinating with neighbors and local fire officials -- keep the danger posed by prescribed burning extremely low.
"People mostly get into trouble when they light a fire casually," said Altman. "People don't give as much thought as they should to burning trash or brush piles. Those who take time to think through a prescribed burn, get enough people to help and pay close attention to weather forecasts almost never have a problem. On the other hand, lighting a pile of trash on a dry, windy day without precautions raises the risk of property damage tremendously."
Anticipating the heightened wildfire danger as a result of recent years' ice storms, the Conservation Department has partnered with local fire departments on programs to raise public awareness. The campaign provides information home and business owners need to create buffers of "defensible space" around their property.