Forest service: Weekend rains won't reduce wildfire danger

Friday, November 12, 2010
An access trail is the only ground unburned in a 50-acre area off Highway DD, just east of Ellsinore, Mo., which burned Tuesday afternoon. (Paul Davis/Daily American Republic)

ELLSINORE, Mo. -- U.S. Forest Service officials predict this weekend's expected rainfall will not be enough to reduce the extreme fire danger in Southeast Missouri.

The area is more than 9 inches below the normal rainfall, and "even if we get precipitation, it will not be significant enough," according to Bill Paxton, fire information officer for the Forest Service. "Don't get a false sense of security.

"What will happen, the ground is so dry, it will soak (the rain in)."

With predictions of a half inch or less of rain and windy conditions on Saturday, the ground will dry out, Paxton said.

The rain "is going to wet the ground, but in one day, we'll be back in fire danger," Paxton said. " ... We'll be back up to high fire danger Sunday even if we get the half inch of rain.

"We're so far behind. ... We need a significant amount of precipitation over an extended period to reduce the fire danger. We need several inches to break the pattern we've got."

Paxton said the only "saving grace" will be the lower temperatures, but it still will be hot and dry.

The humidity in the Ozarks in the fall normally is around 30 to 40 percent, but one of the recent wildfires started when the humidity was at 9 percent, Paxton said.

"That's almost like western conditions ... very active, extreme fire danger," he said. " ... All it takes is one ember right now."

The probability of ignition from a match or cigarette is "well over 90 percent," Paxton said. Exhaust from cars, trucks and all-terrain vehicles also can cause a fire when they are parked in dry grass, he said.

According to Paxton, there already have been almost 60 fires in the last three weeks in the Mark Twain National Forest, which have burned more than 2,600 acres, including 1,000 acres burned in five fires near Alton, Mo.

The largest fire, near Ava, Mo., burned 600 acres, while the small ones have burned an acre or less, Paxton said.

On Tuesday, Forest Service personnel responded to assist the Ellsinore Fire Department on the scene of a fire off Route DD, east of Ellsinore, Mo.

"We have a mutual aid agreement; the rural fire departments can call us," Paxton explained. "When (Ellsinore firefighters) initially sized up the fire, it was beyond their capability and was going to be a little more difficult to suppress.

"They asked for our assistance."

The Forest Service, Paxton said, rolled with about 30 people, as well as four engines, three bulldozers and a helicopter.

"That's a pretty massive group; there were five homes in the path of the fire," Paxton explained. "That's why we sent such a heavy contingent. If you don't have them, you can't use them."

Firefighters were able to contain the fire by creating a line around it within three hours, Paxton said. "We had to come back and do mop up," which involves firefighters going 100 feet or more inside the line to make sure the embers are dead.

The fire burned about 50 acres, as did an earlier one north of Ellsinore, Paxton said.

On Wednesday, the crews battled a fire in the Chapel Hill area, off Highway 49, in Wayne County. The fire, Paxton said, burned about 50 acres.

It started, he said, as the result of someone clearing land and burning a timber pile on Sunday. "They thought it had burned up," but some of the larger trees were still smoldering and held the heat, he said.

The wind got up and reignited the fire, which burned across private property onto Forest Service land, Paxton said. Firefighters got a line around the fire, and then went back Wednesday to do mop up and make sure another fire did not start.

On Thursday, Paxton said, crews battled two fires, north of Ellsinore, "in the same general area."

Both were a couple of acres each, he said. Crews responded in the early afternoon, but some remained there until after 9 p.m., Paxton said.

Personnel returned to those locations Friday on patrol check for rekindles, Paxton said. Additional personnel are contacting hunter camps throughout the district to encourage hunters to be safe with fires, as well as remind them of the rules and regulations.

Given the "very, very high fire danger situation," Paxton said, the Forest Service implemented its fire severity plan about two weeks ago and is in emergency preparedness mode.

"We have brought in additional resources from elsewhere in the country," Paxton explained. "For instance, from Minnesota and Michigan, we brought crews in and engines. We're also using Mingo Job Corps, which is fire qualified."

Paxton said the Forest Service sends a good contingency of people to a fire, with some held back in reserve in case there is another fire.

While the Route DD fire is believed to have started with a cigarette being flicked out a vehicle window, Paxton said, some of the fires have been "questionable in origin and are under investigation."

Paxton urged everyone to be extremely careful and hold off burning piles of brush.

"Hold off until we get precipitation and the fire danger passes," he said. "Sixty fires in three weeks, that's a lot of ground."

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