Fire in Twain forest underscores Mo. heat threat

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — Fire concerns in Missouri widened Friday as crews battled a blaze of several hundred acres in the Mark Twain National Forest.

Officials hoping to prevent more fires amid soaring temperatures and a lack of rain barred campfires on thousands of acres of public land heading into the Fourth of July holiday.

The Mark Twain blaze broke out Thursday morning in a section of the 1.5-million acre forest located in southeast Missouri’s Iron County. By midday Friday, 550 acres had burned, and an additional 2,000 acres were at risk.

KFVS-TV reported that a section of Missouri 32 was closed because the fire was burning on both sides of the highway, causing trees to fall onto the road.

Crews were dumping water from helicopters to stop its spread, said Rick Case, assistant fire manager with the Mark Twain Nation Forest.

Gov. Jay Nixon activated the State Emergency Operations Center and told the Missouri National Guard to get ready to assist with firefighting efforts.

“Extremely hot and dry conditions across our state have created conditions that are prone for fires as we have seen in several counties in recent days,” Nixon, who planned to survey the damage by helicopter Saturday, said in a written statement. “As we approach the Fourth of July holiday, I urge Missourians to take precautions to prevent fires, check on their neighbors and stay safe.”

Numerous Missouri communities already have barred backyard fireworks or canceled their public displays.

The Mark Twain fire comes on the heels of an especially dry spring in which several fires burned across about 8,500 acres during six days in early March, including three that were each responsible for charring more than 1,000 acres, said Ben Webster, fire program supervisor for the Missouri Department of Conservation.

Because of the fire threat, Webster’s department announced Friday that effective immediately, campfires and other open fires are banned in all conservation areas. Webster said the ban would remain in effect until the state receives significant rain.

“We don’t want to do this for folks,” Webster said. “This is something that because of conditions we are doing to be proactive in preventing fires from occurring.”

The U.S. Forest Service also has barred camp or stove fires at the Mark Twain National Forest. Also, the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, which oversees state parks and historic sites, barred campfires at a growing list of places, including Arrow Rock State Historic Site, Bennett Spring State Park, Graham Cave State Park, Trail of Tears State Park, Mark Twain State Park, Van Meter State Park, Watkins Woolen Mill State Park and State Historic Site and Montauk State Park.

As the National Weather Service issued heat advisories for several sections of the state, health officials urged caution. Numerous communities set up cooling centers, and state regulators sent out a reminder that triple-digit temperatures mean Missouri utilities cannot disconnect electricity from people for not paying their bills.

State health officials said heat-related illnesses had sent more than 250 people to emergency rooms since May. And the Kansas City Health Department announced Friday that the number of deaths the Jackson County Medical Examiner is investigating as possibly heat-related has grown to three.

The deaths involve men born in 1952 and 1943, and a boy born last year. The department wouldn’t comment further. But police in suburban Lee’s Summit announced previously that a 13-month-old boy died May 3 after being left for hours in a hot car.

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