A wildfire burns in Reynolds County in March, 2012. (Photo by AJ Hendershott)
People are funny about trees. We don't think about them much as long as they're healthy and nice to look at. We want them here, but unless they're dead or dying we don't consider them.
I had the opportunity to fly west this week to California on personal time and the one thing I couldn't wait to see were the famous giant redwood trees. To be honest, I don't normally seek trees out to view. I like them, but as long as they're there, I tend not to think about them. But knowing I was about to view a tree species that is the largest and oldest in the world, was truly exciting.
But before I even made it to California to set my eyes on a redwood, some other trees took center stage in a scene I hadn't anticipated. My flights across the west connected in Denver, Co., and as my second flight headed away from Denver and over the Rocky Mountains, the sight below was devastating.
I was looking at a portion of the 846,366 acres in Colorado that were burned in wildfire this year, according to the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC). The black remains of the forest fires we've all watched on the news this year was right below my plane as it raised high into the sky. I'm not sure of the distance, but from my elevated vantage point the blanket of singed trees reached out as far as I could see. Intermixed with the dark forested areas were a few green patches next to buildings where a yard and the trees within had been protected. These sheltered green areas looked strange amongst the blackness.
This, I thought, is what wildfire really means. It doesn't happen in some distant, uninhabited non-descript area of trees we can't relate to. It happens anywhere and it's wild, uncontrolled, and nearly impossible to stop at its worst. It happens to forests full of wildlife, it spreads it's devastation to people's homes and can fill such huge areas that the full consequences are immeasurable.
Missouri wildfires have burned 23,321 acres this year. While this might not sound too bad in comparison to acreages burned in Colorado, consider that it all adds up. And those many thousands of acres mean a lot to the Missourians who live there, hunt there, and hike there. Across our nation, wildfire devastation has added up this year across 8,305,297 acres according to the NIFC. That's an area larger than the whole state of Maryland. According to foresters here in southeast Missouri, this was the worst year for wildfires that many of them could remember, due to our dry weather conditions.
Eventually the plane rose high enough in the sky and emerged above the clouds so I could no longer see the masses of burned trees below. But the scene remained in my mind's eye. It's a vision I hope I never forget and hope to never witness to that extent in my home state.
Drought and weather conditions are factors that no one can control. But Smokey Bear said "Only you can prevent wildfires" because most wildfires are caused by human negligence or malicious arson. You can take up Smokey's cause by using safe burning techniques when you must burn.
|*||Check with your local fire department to see if open burning is permitted or if you need a burn permit.|
|*||Prior to the burn, contact your local forestry office or rural fire department and tell them your plans--what time you plan to start burning, how long you plan to burn and what (brush piles, leaves, etc.) you will burn.|
|*||Check the weather. Avoid burning on dry, windy days. Pick an overcast day when winds are calm and humidity is high. Try to burn before 10 a.m. or after 3 p.m. This is when winds are usually calmest and humidity is highest.|
|*||Keep brush piles small (about 5 feet by 5 feet), and burn them in open fields when snow is on the ground or in the late spring after the grass has greened up.|
|*||Avoid burning piles under overhanging tree limbs, utility lines or close to buildings.|
|*||Cover your debris pile with a waterproof tarp. After a rain, when the surrounding vegetation is wet, remove the plastic and you'll be ready to burn. This helps reduce the chance of your fire spreading to surrounding vegetation.|
|*||Before you burn, gather rakes, wet burlap sacks and other firefighting tools. Have a source of water close by. This will help you take quick action should your fire start to get out of control. Call the fire department immediately should a fire escape.|
|*||Stay with your burn pile until it is completely extinguished. Drown ashes with water and stir them with a shovel or rake to make sure there are no hot embers left smoldering.|
|*||Check your fire the next day, just to be sure.|
Also, consider alternatives to burning before you light a match. You can: compost twigs and small limbs to produce great organic matter for your vegetable and flower gardens; chip larger branches into mulch for gardens, trees and landscaped areas; use wood chippers to eliminate tree branches and other debris; Haul debris to designated dump sites in your area; cut fallen limbs for use or sale as firewood; build--don't burn--brush piles to make wildlife habitat and let it naturally decay in two to five years.
With these alternatives, we can prevent a large majority of wildfires and heed Smokey Bear's warning.
I saw the redwood trees within hours of the devastated Rocky Mountain forest fire areas. They were majestic, just as I'd expected, and on the farthest other end of the spectrum from the sad state of the Colorado trees. Once I returned to Missouri, our rolling forested hills in the beginning stages of autumn welcomed me home, and I was glad to see them.
To report a wildfire call 911 or call your local Missouri Department of Conservation forestry office.