Fire crews working to contain Mark Twain blaze

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — Dozens of firefighters were planning to work through the weekend to keep a large fire in the Mark Twain National Forest from re-igniting after rainfall calmed the blaze down temporarily.

Forest Service officials believe three fires that started Wednesday in south-central Missouri were intentionally set. Forest Ranger Thom Haines said this week he thinks the fires, all of which started around the same time, were the work of locals who historically have had issues with absentee landowners who restrict access to their property for hunters.

Haines said the biggest of the three fires, about 5,000 acres in diameter, is believed to be the largest such blaze ever at Mark Twain. Firefighters from North Carolina and Georgia arrived Friday to help build a fire line around the perimeter to contain the blaze, which was slowed by half an inch of rain Thursday.

With the weekend expected to be dry, and several hotspots threatening to pick back up, Haines said crews are hoping to keep the fire in check until another expected storm front rolls in next week.

"We'll be working on this all weekend long," he said. "If our luck holds and we get the rain that's supposed to be coming next week, we'll be OK."

A new problem facing forest officials is that deer hunters are starting to come into the area, and some have set up camp in so-called "black" areas, or sections of forest charred by fire.

"The public is now coming into the forest in anticipation of hunting season," he said. "I know of two people who have set up camp in the black. We will go talk to them and remind them of the danger of being in a burned-over area. The forest isn't closed, so they can do that if they want."

One of the dangers to people who camp in the burned areas is that dormant fires could reignite, he said. There's also the chance that the fire has damaged root systems of some trees that remain standing, causing the potential for some trees to fall over onto the campers.

While the fall wildfire season runs from Oct. 10 to Dec. 10 each year, Mark Twain has been especially vulnerable to a large blaze because of a wind storm in May 2009 called a derecho that knocked down trees over about 100,000 acres. With the dead timber on the ground and leaves that are falling from the trees that are still standing, there's a great deal of fuel for any fire that starts in the forest.

"In the Ozarks, a normal forest area that didn't have a derecho event would have a normal fuel load of 2 to 5 tons per acre," said Forest Service spokesman Bill Paxton. "I'm talking about leaves, stems, timber and other stuff on the ground. This year we have 50 to 100 tons per acre. It's like having a big wood pile out there that could burn, and burn hot, in certain conditions."

Paxton said no homes were in danger of the current fires, the biggest of which is about seven miles west of Bunker, in southern Dent County. The other two fires are far smaller; one is about 5 acres and the other about 310 acres. Both have containment lines around them.

Both Paxton and Haines urged anyone who knows who started the fires to call the forest ranger's office or law enforcement authorities. Paxton said some tips have come in, and they're being handled by law enforcement.

"You're putting people's lives at risk when you set an arson fire," Paxton said. "Not only firefighters, but people in homes in that area. Plus, you're damaging your natural resources. It's a bad thing. There are a few people running around causing problems. All of these fires are suspected arson. You don't get three fires popping up like that in the forest in a day." Fire crews from North Carolina and Georgia are in Missouri this weekend trying to keep a large fire in the Mark Twain National Forest from getting out of control.

Three fires at the forest in south-central Missouri began Wednesday, and forest officials believe they are the work of an arsonist. The biggest of the blazes is around 5,000 acres, thought to be the largest ever fire in the Mark Twain.

About half an inch of rain fell Thursday night, slowing the fire a little, but with dry conditions expected for the weekend crews were hoping to keep it under control until more rain falls next week.

Forest Ranger Thom Haines says he thinks the fires were started by residents unhappy with absentee landowners who won't allow hunters on their land.

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