By BILL DRAPER
KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) - More than 50 Forest Service firefighters were battling a blaze Wednesday at Mark Twain National Forest in south-central Missouri that a forest ranger thinks may have been set intentionally by locals who have a history of using arson in their beefs against absentee landowners.
Salem District forest ranger Thom Haines said the fire, which had consumed about 5,000 acres by Wednesday afternoon, began as three separate blazes.
Firefighters were racing to contain the fire before a storm system was forecast to move through the area later Wednesday. While some rain was expected, it likely wouldn't come until after the winds pick up from the north, complicating the job for fire crews that have been dealing with more southerly winds.
"If we can make it through the wind event and to the rains this evening, I would feel a lot more confident calling the fire controlled," Haines said.
No homes were immediately in danger, he said, but that could change when the wind shifts.
More than 100,000 acres of trees were knocked down nearly three years ago by a wind event in the area where the fire is burning. Haines said that left a large amount of dead timber on the forest floor, in addition to blankets of dry leaves that have fallen from the trees, causing the blaze to spread rapidly.
The timing and proximity of the fires is suspicious, he said, leading investigators to believe an arsonist started them.
"All three started pretty much at the same time," Haines said. "For me, that is extremely curious. It wasn't like campfires at a campground. It's random woods where nobody was located."
He said the fires, which started around noon Tuesday, were similar to a fire last year that started just south of the current blaze. In last year's fire, someone started three or four smaller fires, including on private land, that spread to the national forest.
"Some people get mad at absentee property owners and try to burn them out every year," he said. "In a lot of cases there are no homes there, just barren land. New landowners don't want people hunting and running dogs and trespassing on their land. The locals say they have been using the land for three generations and "you can't tell me that.' Unfortunately you have some people with that mentality."
On Tuesday, 35 U.S. Forest Service firefighters, five bulldozers and four fire trucks were at the scene. Twenty more firefighters joined the battle Wednesday and more equipment was being brought in, he said.
Depending on how hard the wind blows Wednesday and how much rain falls, homes could eventually be in danger, he said.
"It's a big event for us because we have so many private landowners around that area," Haines said. "Not only is people's private property being threatened, but public land is being threatened and, frankly, the lives of my firefighters out there are being threatened."
Mark Twain National Forest covers 1.5 million acres in 29 counties in southern and central Missouri.
The Forest Service is asking for anyone who sees something suspicious to call the Mark Twain National Forest Salem Ranger District office at 573-729-6656, or the toll-free arson hotline at 800-392-1111.