CAPE GIRARDEAU, MO - The risk of wildfire is currently high in southeast Missouri and the Ozarks, according to Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC) foresters.
According to Joe Garvey, Forestry Supervisor for the MDC’s Southeast Region, Fire dangers are up due to dry weather throughout October, low humidity and a plentiful fire fuel supply such as drying grasses, leaves and storm debris that remains in wooded areas throughout southern Missouri. Garvey urges residents and campers to refrain from burning leaves and trash outdoors and to report any suspicious activity that might be connected with arson fires.
“Our fire danger level is in the high to very high range,” said Garvey.
Dry, dead leaves on the forest floor, dormant grasses and dead weeds are plentiful during an ordinary fall season, but the fact that downed trees remain in many wooded areas from the massive May 2008 storm only adds to the risk. Foresters are concerned because low moisture in autumn can lead to major wildfires in rural areas where firefighting crews have a broad countryside to protect and sometimes must battle blazes in hard to reach off-road locations.
Garvey says landowners should ensure they have “defensible space” designated on their property as they clear away stray limbs and downed trees. Defensible space is an area around a structure where fuels and vegetation are treated, cleared or reduced in order to slow the spread of a wildfire toward the building. According to the MDC and the State Fire Marshal, a home is more likely to withstand a wildfire if grass, brush, trees and other fuels are managed to reduce the intensity of a fire.
“The concern is if any downed tree limbs or other brush isn’t cleared away, a wild fire could spread easily into someone’s yard and the debris could keep firefighters from doing their jobs,” Garvey said.
The State Fire Marshal recommends 30 feet of defensible space should be incorporated around a home as a barrier to fire and as a defensible area for firefighters to maneuver in as they make a stand against fire. Within this defensible space a grass lawn is recommended, along with non-combustible surfaces such as stone, concrete or brick for patios and decks. Garvey said more information is available to landowners if they wish to design their landscape to promote fire-safety.
In the current dry seasonal conditions, Garvey says it’s best to hold off on burning items such as household trash. According to the MDC, 60 percent of Missouri’s wildfires are accidentally caused by careless trash burning.
“You might think you’ve watched the fire go completely out, but when you walk away an ember could blow out, travel on the wind and lead to a lot of damage,” Garvey said. He added this is why even when fire dangers are low a person should never leave a fire unattended until the last coal is out. A single spark can destroy thousands of acres of wildlife habitat and pastures, property, and endanger human lives, he said.
Other concerns include cigarettes, generators, gas lanterns and stoves, which can become fire hazards if not property maintained or when used close to dry vegetation. Garvey encourages campers and residents to maintain awareness of surroundings, the condition of vegetation and weather, especially wind and humidity. When humidity is low, wind is high or gusty, and vegetation is dry, extra time should be taken to clear away vegetation and other fuels from fires and outdoor appliances. Other suggestions for campfires is to store unburned wood a safe distance from the campfire and to keep a shovel or rake nearby by help put out a hot or escaped fire.
Anyone who witnesses suspicious activity involving fire or smoke should call the Operation Forest Arson hotline at 1-800-392-1111. Rewards for information leading to arrests or convictions of violators range from $100 to $1,000. More information is available at http://mdc.mo.gov/contact-us/operation-forest-arson.
“Wildfire is a threat to conserving healthy forests, fish and wildlife and we need everyone’s help keeping a look out for wildfires during this dry season,” Garvey said.
More fire safety tips can be found at www.firewise.org or by contacting the local fire department or the local MDC office.