At this time of year, we’re often talking about snow, ice and what the prospects are for a white Christmas. However, the dry conditions we’re currently experiencing makes wildfire risk a necessary subject to discuss now.
When we have conditions like we have now, it’s hard to over-emphasize fire danger in the Ozarks. The natural conditions associated with winter – when there’s not snow and ice on the ground – makes this time of year a peak time for fire danger in Missouri.
That may run contrary to some people’s line of thinking: Most of us associate this time of year with snow and ice. Well, look around right now and you’ll see a lot of brown – not white. The dry grass, dry weeds and dead leaves that are part of a typical winter landscape is what our groundcover consists of. Add downed tree branches that are residual debris of past weather events or aging trees and you have a landscape that has an abundance of materials that could serve as fuels for wildfires.
Two fire-enhancing factors that are often present at this time of year are dryness and wind. Yes, we do have snow (and sometimes rain), but at this time of year, it’s also a time when parts of the outdoors dry faster than in summer. Because there’s not as much foliage in the canopies of trees to block the sun, ground-cover items like grass and weeds dry out at a much quicker rate after a rain. Because of this, soil moisture has little to do with fire hazard at this time of year.
Relative humidity is another fire factor because it affects the rate at which potential fire fuels dry. The lower the relative humidity is, the harder it is to control a fire because a fire’s size and intensity can increase rapidly. When we have those unseasonably warm days that are always part of winter, there’s a good chance you’ll either hear about or see fires out of control.
Moving from fire factors to fire prevention tips, here’s an obvious one: Don’t burn. While it’s true that burning brush is ingrained in our land-clearing philosophies in this part of the country, it should be remembered there are other options. One is to use the fallen branches to form brush piles that can be used as habitat for wildlife. This reduces fire danger by consolidating the fuel. Instead of having dry branches scattered across an entire site, they’re clumped together in a small area. This makes an area much less fire-friendly and much friendlier to the mix of local wildlife species that can utilize brush piles for denning, brood-rearing, shelter and other habitat needs.
Much of the downed tree debris you’ll find is probably past the stage of being considered high-quality firewood, but it still could have a firewood purpose. The fallen limbs that have lain on the ground for several years are still a great source of fuel for camping trip campfires and backyard fire pits. You might also be able to mix some of the old wood you’ll find with better quality logs to stretch your firewood supply for stoves and fireplaces next winter.
In many areas, you can also rent wood chippers from rental businesses. Chippers help you turn fallen branches of all sizes into valuable mulch that can be used around newly planted trees, shrubs and in a variety of landscaping and gardening schemes.
If, after considering all these options, you’ve decided you still need to burn – be careful. Watch weather forecasts and avoid burning on dry, windy days. Contact local agencies to see if any burn warnings are in effect. Have a water source, shovel and other fire-fighting tools handy. If you’re doing a controlled burn or burning a large brushpile, it’s a good idea to contact the local fire department or call your county’s non-emergency fire dispatch to let them know what you’re doing. That prevents fire departments from making a needless trip to a fire that’s under control. If possible, postpone your burning until spring green-up is well underway. At all times, stay with your fire until it is completely extinguished. Drown the coals with water and stir the ashes with a rake or shovel until you’re certain the fire is out.
Fire-safety tips and information on burning alternatives are available at your nearest Missouri Department of Conservation office or at mdc.mo.gov. To report arson-caused fires, individuals can call the Operation Game Thief/Forest Arson Hotline, 1-800-392-1111. Rewards are available for information leading to the arrest of game law violators and arsonists.