Volunteers help put out wildfires at Lake of the Ozarks
April 7, 2011 NOTE: The Lake Ozark Strike Team no longer exists
Thick gray smoke rose high above the fire, forming a cloud much like an angry spring thunderhead. Below the smoke, the fire raced up and out of a drainage, destroying everything in its path. The wind drove the fire into a frenzy. Fire devils did an eerie dance along the flame front, shooting burning embers well ahead of the fire's path.
The Lake Ozark Strike Team worked feverishly to control this untamed beast. Cutting a fireline well ahead of the fire, the team, armed with blowers and rakes, struggled through briars and sprouts. Choking, thick smoke made it hard to breathe and see.
With burning, watery eyes they knew they must keep going or the fire would win. Finally the wind died down and changed direction - just the break they needed. The strike team members happily gulped in some fresh air and doubled their efforts, burning out their fireline as they built it.
At long last they met up with the Missouri Department of Conservation tractor plow unit. Now a fireline completely surrounded the fire. They had trapped the beast and it soon died. The strike team had no time to celebrate their victory; another fire came to life some 10 miles away. They loaded their equipment and left to battle another beast.
The Lake Ozark Strike Team is a group of volunteers dedicated to wildfire suppression and prevention. The team is composed of a housewife, an engineer, a sheriff's deputy, retirees, high school students, boat manufacturers and rural fire department members. When they are not at work, at school, at home or helping their fire departments, you can find them down at the Lake Ozark Forestry Office in Lebanon, working on their fire equipment.
"The Strike Team works together as a group, not as individuals. That's what makes the team work," says strike team member Bob Hurd. "We change crew leaders each month so everyone has the opportunity to find out what it is like to lead the crew." Bob has been a strike team member since the beginning. "At first we didn't get much respect from some of the rural fire departments until they saw us work. After that they knew they could depend on us to get the job done."
On July 15, 1991, Jack Glendenning, a retired Lake Ozark forestry district resource technician and Junior Anderson, resource aide, met with the Laclede County Fire Fighters Association to present to them the strike team concept. "I was sitting at home one night and this idea came to me," recalls Jack. "Why can't we form our own group of volunteer firefighters to assist both the Department of Conservation and the rural fire departments? I talked to Junior about this and he agreed that we might have something."
On July 23, 1991, Glendenning's idea came to life. The first meeting produced 25 interested firefighters. This fire crew met on August 7, 1991 for their first formal fire training. "Once we received a firm commitment from the fire fighters I presented the idea to Noble Hargett, district forester of the Lake Ozark forest district," recalls Glendenning. "Noble moved quickly with the idea and received approval from the Conservation Department to equip the strike team as much as possible.
"At first, all we could do was supply blowers, rakes and backpack water pumps," Glendenning says. "But later on we were able to get two trucks and mobile and portable radios. Clarence Shaw and Nolan Camp then led the strike team in getting the trucks painted and in firefighting condition."
Mark Gerard, Bennett Spring fire chief, was one of the original strike team members. "I saw the strike team as a way to build a good working relationship with other rural fire departments. Working with people from other departments and learning their way of doing things could help my fire department. And in return, maybe they could also learn something from me."
Red Arnell, Richland Fire departments chief, agrees with Gerard. "Not only do we learn from other departments, but the training we receive from the Department of Conservation is invaluable. All the knowledge and experience that I have gained through the strike team I have been able to take back to my fire department."
Strike teams also participate in parades, fire prevention programs and fire prevention week. "We work as many parades as we can get to," says Greg Drinkall, a Bennett Spring rural fire department member. "During Christmas, things can get a little crazy. On one Saturday the strike team rode in four parades."
During fire prevention week, the Conservation Department goes to all the local grade schools to teach first graders the importance of wild fire prevention and safety. Smokey Bear also goes along and hands out fire prevention material, like coloring books, pencils, rulers and book marks.
"We visit every grade school in Dallas and Laclede County," says Glendenning. "The strike team plays a vital role in this fire prevention program. They help us put together the packets of fire prevention materials to hand out to the kids, and they also go along with us to help Smokey Bear hand out the packets. When you have to visit 10 to 12 schools in one week and put together over 1,000 packets, you are happy to get any help you can."
Karen Ray, a housewife, has been a member of the strike team for three years now. She and her husband Steve have dedicated numerous late nights and weekends assisting the Conservation Department. "Oh I love it," declares Ray, "especially helping with the fire prevention programs at the grade schools. It's always a thrill to see the kid's eyes light up when Smokey Bear walks into the room. The kids will yell 'Smokey' and if we're not careful the children will maul the bear."
The Lake Ozark forest district averages about 500 wildfires each year - more than anywhere else in the state. Forty-seven percent of those fires are caused by arson, 42 percent by debris burning and 11 percent by miscellaneous causes. Without the help of dedicated firefighters within the Department of Conservation, rural fire department firefighters and strike team volunteers, these fires would devastate thousands of acres of forest land and destroy hundreds of thousands of dollars in personal property.
The Lake Ozark Strike Team is the first and only team of its kind in the state. Dedicated to wildfire suppression and prevention, the team members gather each month for training and to swap fire fighting stories. "I don't know what we would do without them," says Glendenning. "One thing that still amazes me is how excited they get when it comes to parades, Smokey programs or fire fighting. It's great to see!"