Wildfires torch homes in Missouri

BY SUSAN KIM | Camden County, MO | March 10, 2000

At least 17 homes have burned as more than 50 brush and wildfires spread rapidly across Missouri Friday. Winds of up to 40 mph, low humidity, and dry brush have created precariously hot and dry conditions.

Many of the fires were the result of careless burning of trash and debris by citizens that got out of control, according to the Missouri Emergency Management Agency (MEMA).

MEMA also reported that the majority of the fires have been in the central and south-central regions of the state. Already 17 residences and 31 structures have been destroyed by more than 50 fires.

The largest number of fires and structural damage occurred in Camden and Laclede counties, with the heaviest concentration of damage in Camden County. An assistance center has been established at Community Christian Church in Camdenton, where several faith-based groups are responding through the Community Interagency Disaster Organization. The Salvation Army and American Red Cross are also responding.

"Most assistance to this point has been in the form of canteen and rest support for firefighters from across the state," said Linda Reed Brown, Church World Service (CWS) disaster resource facilitator (DRF).

Fire officials near Columbia, said a number of fires originally set by landowners to clear property that then got out of control, were to blame for most of the brush fires in Boone County. Controlled burns by farmers is an increasingly controversial practice -- particularly in areas that have been ravaged by recent droughts.

Proponents of the practice argue that following a controlled burn, new vegetation often grows better because the fire can kill diseases and insects. Other agriculture experts suggest that using burn techniques eventually robs the soil of nutrients.

More than 250 firefighters have been dispatched to the south-central region of the state. One firefighter was hospitalized after falling and becoming engulfed in flames Wednesday but was reported in good condition on Friday. The majority of families evacuated due to the fires found shelter with relatives, reported MEMA.

Damage assessments are still underway throughout the state.

Ongoing drought conditions have aggravated the fire hazard in many other states as well. A total of 17 large fires were reported in Florida, Virginia, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, and Louisiana. Hazardous fire conditions are also being reported in Tennessee, Indiana, Illinois, Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona.

Over the past two to three years, fire conditions have grown worse in Georgia, said Ken Davis, public information officer for the Georgia Emergency Management Agency. In Georgia, a wilderness area is currently burning east of Chatsworth.

In that state, large fires have become "common over the past two years," said Davis. "And there have been tough fires that went on for some time," especially along the Georgia-Florida border.

"In that case, the wind carries sparks from Florida's fires, unfortunately, and there are always ocean breezes. But really the entire state is vulnerable," he added, because of ongoing dry conditions. "It doesn't take much" to start a large fire.

In Florida, 14 miles north of Lake City, a fire is burning in brush, swamp, and a commercial pine plantation. In late February, a fire burned through commercial timberlands north of Gainesville, forcing some 500 people to evacuate their homes.

Crop farmers, who are still suffering from hay and feed shortages, as well as financial loss from the ongoing drought, are less vulnerable to fires than orchards or residents who live in wooded areas, said Tom Smucker of Mennonite Disaster Services.

On crop farms, "there is no vegetation to burn," he said, "but in the western part of North America, you have prairie fires that travel extremely fast when it's hot and dry."

Prairie fires can cause extensive damage to grazing pastures, he said, adding that "wind is a key component in spreading fires."

The drought has caused a fire hazard even for areas where fires aren't usually a threat.

CWS DRF Shirley Norman, who was traveling through the southern U.S. to help coordinate recovery from last month's flooding, said, "In southern West Virginia, I drove through smoke for 35 miles." On Sunday, she added, near her home in Markleysburg, "35 acres burned in Pennsylvania."

In North Carolina, where recovery is still going on from the extensive flooding caused by Hurricane Floyd, no out-of-control fires have yet been reported. "We're holding our breath," said Charlie Moeller, also a CWS DRF. "So far the fires in this state have been confined to a couple of acres. But our concern is that these fronts coming through have a lot of wind. And conditions are very dry and very treacherous."

Responders report that a fire disaster presents unique challenges. With floods, tornadoes, and other natural disasters, survivors often can repair damaged structures or recover at least some possessions. But for many families, wildfires leave nothing behind but ashes.

In Shasta County, Calif., residents are still recovering from a fire in fall 1999 that destroyed nearly 200 homes. There, some rebuilding is being coordinated through the Shasta County Fire Interfaith Relief Effort (SCFIRE).

"The local rain has inhibited our construction efforts but the volunteers are working in the heavy downpours and under way less-than-ideal condition s," said Skip Tyler, director. "Construction sites are having to be pumped clear of water and back-filled with special rock so that foundations can be poured."

SCFIRE is in need of financial contributions in order to continue its efforts, he added.

SCFIRE volunteers began in February to rebuild a home for a 69-year-old disabled woman who lives alone, said Tyler. "She had no insurance and lost everything including her very old collection of porcelain dolls. She cried when we broke ground on her home."

Less than 30 percent of those affected in that fire had insurance. Recovery is expected to last at least a year.

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