As wildfires sweep across Colorado and other areas forcing tens of thousands of people from their homes, one wonders if the same thing is possible in our own state.
With triple-digit heat, low humidity and no significant rainfall in over a month, regional conditions are favorable for not only starting a fire but also rapid fire spread and precautions need to be taken in both defense and preparedness.
Washington Fire Chief Bill Halmich, describing the situation as serious, said it would be wise to look to the West for education on preventing a potential catastrophe.
“The only difference between the conditions in Colorado and the conditions here are that we do not have the potential for crowning fires because we do not have as many pine trees as they do out West,” he said. “Texas and Oklahoma have had droughts similar to what we are in now and have had massive land fires and so the potential for a large fire is there. A fire can start in a rural area and burn suburban or it can start in a suburban area and burn rural.”
The Missouri state fire marshal issued a high fire danger alert earlier this month.
Simple things like leaves clogging a gutter, parking an overheated car in tall grass or discarding a cigarette can lead to a rapid spreading fire. Halmich and other volunteers responded to an overturned vehicle on Old Highway 100 Monday afternoon to find that a small spark had turned into an accumulating grass fire. Volunteers also responded to a small fire started by three to four youngsters playing with matches near the 900 block of Esther Street Monday.
“All it takes is a spark, some dry grass and a slight wind and you have a grass fire that could potentially get out of hand,” he said. “We have already seen it. It’s not like we are crying wolf.”
In current conditions, fire safety should be a top priority.
“Anything combustible should be viewed as fuel for potential fire spread,” said Halmich. “Debris, vegetation, high grass, are all things that can contribute to the spread of a wildfire. I have seen instances in which a fire uses dry vegetation to continue its course.”
The simplest way to prevent a fire is to maintain an interface.
“Maintaining an interface can be as simple as weed eating weeds and tall grass around outbuildings, making sure bushes and vines are properly trimmed, keeping debris around your house picked up or cleaning out gutters that have been packed with leaves,” he said. “Leaf accumulation, for example, was a contributing factor when Hardee’s restaurant burned down.”
Other safety precautions Halmich suggests include keeping a garden hose handy, being extra mindful of rocks while mowing and properly disposing of unwanted debris.
Beyond individual safety measures, Halmich said plans are being made in case of a disaster.
“Depending on the size of the event there is potential to lose homes, traffic flow would be interrupted and we would be amassing a large quantity of resources from across the state, which takes time,” he said. “These are all things that we are planning for.”
Washington is area three of the region C state mutual aid plan.
“In case of emergency we would notify the regional operation center in Ellisville and then they go to Jefferson City and that is when things start happening,” said Halmich. “It’s the same procedure that Joplin used during its event and it works for all disasters.”
A wildfire evacuation plan is in place.
“The evacuation plan involves determining which way the fire is traveling and sending people in the opposite direction and hopefully being able to put a body of water between evacuating persons and the fire,” he said. “We are always working with the State Emergency Management Agency to improve our planning and processes.”
While it is important to have plans in place in case of an emergency, Halmich urges that preventative measures will make the difference.
“The people of Washington have been very cooperative with fire safety precautions and I hope that continues,” he said.