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By John Stanton
While this month’s article was going to be another fire department profile, with the extremely dry conditions, the major fires that have been burning in Texas, and the fall burn season approaching, I thought that an article on wildland fires might be a bit more appropriate.
Wildland fires in Missouri can be open pasture, woodland, or just scrub areas. State statute makes ALL wildland fires in Missouri the jurisdiction of the Missouri Department of Conservation. Most fire departments in Missouri have a Mutual Aid Agreement with the Department of Conservation to combat these fires, as well as to respond if needed, to major wildland fires, augmenting Conservation personnel.
This symbiotic relationship benefits Conservation by extending their resources and directly benefits the various departments in the form of equipment provided directly to the department(s).
Forestry Statutes provide that a Conservation Forester can use whatever means necessary to gain access to a wildland fire, and is not subject to trespass laws when doing so. The respective mutual aid agreements extend this provision to subscribing departments. This does not mean that local fire fighters are going to tear down someone’s fence to extinguish a fire on private property, where no danger to other property exists. It does, however, allow firefighters to cross private property if necessary, to save your neighbor’s house, barn, etc.
Burning off fields and woodlands is a common practice here in the Ozarks, and has been for generations. Fire can be extremely beneficial when correctly applied. Missouri Department of Conservation regularly conducts free classes around the state on the proper methods of doing a controlled burn. Some fire departments will also gladly assist a landowner with advice or actual help in conducting a controlled burn. It is to the department’s benefit to see the burn done right versus having to respond to a totally out-of-control fire.
In Missouri, the responsibility for fire prevention and fire control rests solely with the respective landowner. If a fire starts on your property, you effectively own that fire, regardless of how it got started. If that fire leaves your property and does damage to the property of another, you are responsible.
Additionally, if you plan on conducting a controlled burn, most departments in Douglas County ask that you call the Sheriff’s Office, (Douglas County Sheriff’s Office dispatches all the fire departments in the county) before you start the burn, and give them the location, date, and times of the burn. This serves two purposes: first, when a passer-by sees the fire and calls it in, the Sheriff’s Office does not have to dispatch a fire department; and secondly, if the fire does get out of control, the Sheriff’s Office knows exactly where to send the fire department.
While there is no law that mandates this, it is just common courtesy.
As a rule, wildland fires in Missouri, in a woodlot, are “leaf litter” fires. How fast they burn depends upon the wind, how dry the fuel load is, the relative humidity, and if they are burning up or down hill. “Crown” fires, much like those seen farther west, are not impossible here, and with the right conditions could occur. Wildland fires in field and pastures burn dependant on the fuel load, dryness, wind, relative humidity, and if they are burning up or down hill. Given the same wind conditions, and dryness, a pasture full of waist high grass will burn significantly faster than a woodlot fire. Fires will generally burn slower downhill, and faster uphill. A fire will burn 10 mph faster uphill for each 10-degree increase in slope.
Much has been said lately about the Urban Wildland Interface, referring to the steady encroachment of residential developments into wildland areas, where a substantial amount of the wildland area is left intact. Every year we get to hear about all the homes destroyed in California or some other western state due to massive, fast moving fires, in the Urban-Wildland Interface.
These fires have caused a substantial shift in thinking within the fire service. Traditionally, there have been wildland fire firefighters and, separately, structure fire firefighters. Now both groups are being called on to do the other’s job. This has led to serious re-evaluation of training and equipment resources by both disciplines as wildland firefighters are neither trained nor equipped to fight a structure fire and vice versa.
These fires have also generated substantial research into why we lose residential structures in these fires.
Fire is spread in two ways, radiated heat, where heat is transferred through the air to a given fuel until that fuel heats to its ignition temperature; and, conducted heat, where something burning is exposed to another fuel and heats that fuel to its ignition temperature.
Research, coupled with empirical data has established that structures within the Urban-Wildland Interface rarely, if ever ignite from radiated heat. Structures are lost from conducted heat. This may be burning embers landing on a combustible roof and igniting the roof, dried leaves in a residential gutter system ignited by flying embers, or something that allows the fire to burn right up to the structure, i.e. bushes, trees, leaves, trash, etc.
If a structure has a non-combustible roof and there is nothing within 100 feet of the structure that will burn, the structure survives the fire. If you live in Ava proper, you live in an urban area, and wildland fires do not present a direct threat to your home. If you live out of town, you most likely live in your own mini-urban-wildland interface. Wildland fires present a danger to your residence if your roof is combustible and you allow combustible material to grow or be placed within 100 feet of your residence, barn, etc.
Last year a wildland fire started on N Highway and County Road 333, a second fire started by careless burning of trash occurred farther south in Ozark County, and a third wildland fire was started in Howell County, all at roughly the same time. These three fires eventually involved almost every fire department in Howell, Douglas, and Ozark counties, as well as crews from MDC, and burned several hundred acres and three residences.
The number of residences that did not burn because of the considerable and lengthy efforts of firefighters is not known. One residence, sitting high on a ridgeline above a deep ravine, had dead leaves, knee deep, literally piled against the back of three structures. It is still there due to the efforts of five firefighters from two different fire departments, who were able to stop the fire at the base of the ravine, before it started up the very steep side.
Had the fire gained a foothold, burning upward toward the residence, there is little doubt that the residence would have burned to the ground. In that instance, there simply was not enough equipment or manpower that would have even been able to get to the residence, not to mention, fight a structure fire.
Rural fire departments in Missouri have been doing for years what career city departments and career wildland departments are now having to do — train for, and fight both structure and wildland fires.
Almost every rural department counts at least one brush truck and one pumper engine among its apparatus inventory. Firefighters carry structure firefighting gear and wildland firefighting gear. They train with MDC and other departments to combat both types of fires, and on occasion find themselves fighting both at the same time.
Remember, the various volunteer firefighters are not sitting around at the fire station waiting for you to call. They are your neighbors, some have lived here all their lives, and they may be dairy farmers, mechanics, or have some other job that pays the bills. Some have moved here from somewhere else, maybe retired from a fire department, bringing with them a wealth of training and experience. All are doing something else that they have to leave to respond to a fire, medical emergency, etc. They are no different from you. They burn their pastures or woodlots if they can, and have no objection to you doing the same, only asking that you do it responsibly.
Firewise is a program that many Douglas County Fire Departments participate in. It is a prevention program, designed to educate homeowners concerning the urban-wildland interface. Check with your local department and see if they have someone designated to assist homeowners in evaluating their risk.
Further, many insurance companies that issue homeowner policies require, as a condition of the policy, that the homeowner maintain a membership in the fire department in whose jurisdiction they live. A simple phone call to your agent can determine this.
When conducting a controlled burn of pastureland or woodland, the following are general rules to follow:
A. Wind: Light, and forecast to remain light.
B. Humidity: At least above 50 percent.
C. Do not burn on “Red Flag” days. This indicates extremely dry or windy conditions.
D. Fire Breaks: In Woodlands, rake or blow (leaf blower) a firebreak completely around the area to be burned, at least 3 feet wide. In pastureland, low grass, disk a firebreak completely around the area to be burned, at least 5 feet wide. Tall grass, increases the width of the break to at least 15 feet.
E. Have enough help on hand to control the burn.
F. Call the Sheriff’s Office or your fire department and let them know you will be conducting a controlled burn.
G. If the burn becomes an uncontrolled burn, call the fire department (Sheriff’s Office) immediately.