USA — It started when a flame was put to a small pile of leaves and limbs.In a matter of seconds, wind lifted leaves from the pile into some dry grass,which caught fire.
From there, fire spread through the grass to the last place a ruralfirefighter wants to see it go these days: into the timber.
Thats because repeated ice storms have put more fuel on the ground in timbered areas than at any time in recent memory, officials say. The ground is crisscrossed with limbs and downed trees that not only provide fuel, but limit access and mobility for firefighters.
Andy Nimmo, chief of the Redings Mill Fire Protection District, experienced what the future could hold on March 2, when a small fire broke out on Reinmiller Road, southeast of Joplin. It became a large wildfire in a matter of seconds.
We got our first glimpse of the danger then, Nimmo said. Fifty mile per hour winds in a heavily timbered area with lots of fuel on the ground made it 10 times more difficult to fight. We had to drop back and punt. We had to go to the nearest road we had access to to stop it.
Duane Parker, a fire-protection consultant with Southwest Missouri Resource Conservation and Development, said a wooded area normally has 3 tons of fuel from leaves and fallen limbs per acre.
The average now is 30 to 34 tons per acre because of ice storms in 2007, and that does not include hangers, those limbs that are broken but still hanging in trees, he said.
Globe/T. Rob Brown Andy Nimmo, chief of the Redings Mill Fire Protection District, shows where a wooded area on Reinmiller Road burned last week. The wind-aided fire began as a small, controlled fire and spread because of an increased fuel load of downed limbs and dead trees from ice storms.
Parker predicted the threat of serious fires this spring will be high inSouthwest Missouri.
View your house as fuel, he is telling people who live near woodedareas. He said it could take at least five years to recover from the seriousfire threat.
The fuel supply is large enough to support a 1,000-hour fire from just bigstuff, Parker said. Contrast that with grass and leaves, which burn within anhour or so.
The Redings Mill Fire Protection District covers 110 square miles, and a lotof it is in timber. Nimmo has fought timber fires before, but none quite likethe one he fought along Reinmiller Road.
It was impressive when we got there, he said. Its intensity washigher, and the rate of burn was quicker than anything weve fought in recentyears. Obviously, theres more fuel on the ground.
The last time Redings Mill firefighters fought a timber fire as aggressive asthe one they saw a week ago was probably back in the 1980s during a severedrought, Nimmo said. A summer fire along Reinmiller Road was so intense that itjumped from the crown of one tree to the next. Nimmo said his father fought thatblaze.
This is a little different from fires in a drought season, he said.Its a little more scary to me and more dangerous to my firefighters. Thereare broken tree branches that are still hanging. Trees have died because ofthese ice storms.
There are a lot of dangers for them (firefighters) to be just walkingthrough the woods to attack these fires, which are burning fast with dangersabove us.
Dave Garrison, owner of Paintball Ridge, southwest of Joplin, recently wasburning some grass in advance of some construction work for his business, andthe potential for trouble was a concern.
It wasnt scary because it never did get away from us, he said.But we had to ride herd on it during the night because there was so muchstuff on the ground. If a fire gets loose, it will burn and burn and burn.
We were worried about the wind changing. If it had, it could have beendicey.
Nimmo said urban sprawl has put a lot of homes in the country, and many ofthem are in timbered areas.
Our goal now is to educate the community about burning safely and havingsmaller fires when its not windy, he said. They also need to find waysto protect their homes and property in the event a fire does occur. They needbarriers between the timbered fuel and their property.
A 30-foot barrier between their home and the timber will buy us time andgive us an area in which to work. Of course, we will have to change ourfirefighting tactics because the fuel load has changed.
Reduce the danger
Rake leaves and remove dead growth from ornamental grass. Also, remove deadleaves that have gathered beneath decks and porches.
If possible, have at least a 30-foot fire barrier around all structures.
Do not stack firewood on a porch or next to your house.
Think fire safety before building a house.
People who are planning to do any outside burning should first contact theirfire department. They should have and follow a burn plan for large areas, burnwhen weather conditions are favorable, have people and supplies to control thefire, and wear clothing suited for such work.
More information is available at local offices of the Missouri Department ofConservation or on the Web at www.firewise.org.