COLUMBIA, Mo.-Wildfire season in Missouri typically runs from late March to early May, but hot, dry conditions this year puts the state at heightened risk of wildfire into summer and perhaps beyond, says a University of Missouri Extension state forester.
"This summer is beginning to remind me of the extreme fire conditions we had in Missouri back in 1980," said Hank Stelzer.
Drought and record-high temperatures have placed parts of Missouri under a fire weather watch, which the National Weather Service issues when forecasters are expecting ideal conditions for extensive wildfires.
In Iron County, a fire that started on June 28 has spread across hundreds of acres in the Mark Twain National Forest.
"Most communities are banning all burning and fireworks in southeast Missouri," said Frank Wideman, University of Missouri Extension natural resource engineer.
There's plenty of fuel for wildfires in southern Missouri, thanks to wind events and ice storms in recent years that shattered branches and toppled trees across tens of thousands of acres of forest.
"So great was the affected are that landowners and loggers alike simply could not salvage the timber and clean up Missouri's forests," Stelzer said. "There's a lot of timber on the ground that's broken down, dried and ready to burn. If a fire were to get started, it could lead to disaster."
Missouri's wildfires tend to stay on the ground, unlike fires in states like California and Colorado, where the flames spread rapidly by racing through the treetops, Stelzer said. "While a forest or grass fire in Missouri might not compare to the massive forest and range fires out West, try telling that to someone who has just lost a home or cabin to wildfire."
That is not to say an extreme forest fire could not happen in the Show-Me State.
"Missouri has seen fire conditions similar to those that are now plaguing Colorado and other western states," he said. "In 1980, we had an unusually warm, dry spring that went straight into an even drier summer with temperatures routinely flirting with 100 degrees.
"Fire conditions were so extreme that I remember two fires in particular," Stelzer continued. "One incident resulted from a farmer jump-starting his tractor." A spark ignited a pasture fire that then raced into the timber. "But the most bizarre blaze was the one started by a Coke bottle that served as a magnifying glass to start the fire."
At the time, Stelzer was working for the Missouri Department of Conservation at the forest tree nursery in Licking. "You know the situation was serious when our reserve crew at the nursery was called into action."
Missouri may not see conditions that extreme this year, but in the Ozarks, any wildfires that do occur can pose a serious driving hazard when thick smoke from burning trees settles into valleys and obscures large stretches of road.
"To be fire-wise, you want a defensible space around your home," Stelzer said.
On level ground, landowners need 30 feet of open space, free of large trees, around houses and outbuildings to form a barrier that can stop or slow the spreading flames. For every 10 percent of slope, add 10 feet to this defensible space.
"Hopefully, you don't have cedar shake shingles on your roof, because that's a nice fire starter," Stelzer added.
Roads and woods trails on your land should be accessible to firefighters and emergency vehicles.
"If you have a narrow road leading to your home, firefighters will have to unload their equipment at the county road, wasting valuable time to defend your property," he said. Access roads and gates need to be at least 16 feet wide. Trucks also will need room to turn around.
"If a truck gets into a tight situation, they will have to unload their tractors and bulldoze trees in order to clear a space. That takes precious time away from fighting the fire."
Bridges with low weight restrictions can also prevent emergency vehicles from reaching your home.
Hunters and campers should have at least 10 feet of bare ground around their campfires. During dry conditions, Stelzer gives the same advice he tells his Boy Scouts: "If you must have a fire and there are no burning bans in place, the top of the flames should be no higher than your knees." Never leave fires unattended, and on windy days it's best not to light any fires at all.
Stelzer said that property owners with vacation homes in the woods or who lease their land to hunters should make sure people using their property have the phone number for the local fire protection district.
The Missouri Department of Conservation has information on wildfires and wildfire prevention at http://mdc.mo.gov/landwater-care/fire-management/wildfires.
MU Extension has created a community page on Facebook for organizations and individuals to share information related to drought, extreme heat and wildfires in Missouri: http://www.facebook.com/MissouriDroughtInfo.