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Weather continues to create wildfire dangers for Missouri

From the Missouri Department of Conservation

-- Missouri has been lucky so far this winter, but ice and wind storms have littered the Show-Me state with fuel, and the threat of wildfires could return quickly with dry, windy weather.

Bill Altman, forestry field programs supervisor for the Missouri Department of Conservation, said cold, wet weather so far this year has prevented large-scale problems with forest and grass fires. However, one of the primary requirements for a bad fire season–fuel–remains abundant.

“The big wind storm we had in the Ozarks in May of 2009 and the ice storm along the Arkansas line earlier that year put a lot of downed timber on the ground,” Altman said. “That added to tons of woody debris from devastating ice storms in 2008. Under the wrong set of conditions, all that fuel could create serious problems for property owners and firefighters.”

The Conservation Department helps rural fire departments with grants and assistance in obtaining firefighting equipment, but constant vigilance is required to prevent things from getting out of hand when March winds blow.

“The weather normally turns drier in March,” Altman said. “It only takes a few sunny days with a brisk wind to dry out natural fuels. Then all it takes to create a flare-up is a moment of carelessness with a trash fire.”

Whatever the cause, fires are serious threats to life and property. 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 burns at this and other times of year. Advance preparations such as 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.

Problems usually arise when people light fires casually. Burning trash or brush piles is a familiar activity for some people, and consequently they don’t give it as much thought as they should.

“Pay attention to details like clearing an area around the burn, checking the wind forecast and considering the humidity level before striking a match,” said Altman. “Lighting a pile of trash on a dry, windy day without precautions raises the risk of property damage tremendously.”

To avoid starting a wildfire accidentally, the Conservation Department offers the following advice:

--If you must burn debris, 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.

Altman also suggested that landowners consider not burning brush piles, which provide excellent shelter for quail, rabbits and other wildlife. They decay naturally in a few years anyway.

If you do burn brush piles, Altman urges waiting until May. Once trees leaf out, the humidity level of fuel on the forest floor increases, dramatically reducing the danger of a fire escaping.

More information about preventing wildfires and protecting property is available at www.mdc.mo.gov/15942

Missourians also can write to MDC, PO Box 180, Jefferson City, MO  65102 or email pubstaff@mdc.mo.gov and request the following free booklets: Living with Wildfire (F00013), Prescription Fire (F00027) and How to Protect Your Home, (F00015).

Most wildfires start unintentionally when someone leaves burning rubbish unattended or when a gust of wind carries embers to tinder-dry grass or leaves. However, a significant number of Missouri's wildfires are the work of arsonists. Motives for setting fires range from simple mischief to smoldering resentments against neighbors.

The Conservation Department and the Conservation Federation of Missouri have set up a toll free hot line (800)392-1111 so citizens can report suspicious wildfires anonymously. The hot line is staffed 24 hours a day.

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