Mark Twain National Forest, near Salem, Mo. | Summer is not supposed to be fire season in southeast Missouri. Summer normally is too humid here for flames to shoot to the top of the native short-leaf pines.
This year, well, Tim Bray starts at the beginning: “Our first fire of the year occurred Jan. 1.”
Fire season continues; seven were fought in just the past week, and those were just in Zone 1 of the 1.5 million-acre forest, where Bray holds the title “Zone 1 Fuels Specialist.”
They've been weird fires, too, the likes of which Bray and his fellow U.S. Forest Service firefighters rarely see here over the span of a career. “Dry lightning,” which produces fires without any rain, has struck four times already in 2012, doubling the total number of such forest fires Bray, 46, had seen in his 20-year career.
Most days, fires here begin with a thin column of white smoke — seen from one of the 100-foot-tall fire towers presently occupied by Jason McCall, who grew up in Salem. He usually operates a bulldozer for the fire service.
Growing up, McCall always loved the outdoors and the expanse of the Mark Twain forest. But this fire-tower gig bores him, “cuts down on my mobility.” Stuck four hours today in a steel and glass room about the size of a half-bathroom, 7-by-7 feet, with an 11-mile view, he's looking.
Looking, looking, for that thin white column of smoke.
“Day like this,” McCall says, “it doesn't matter how little a fire starts. It'll get big.”
A gray puff off in the distance captures his eye. Bray grabs binoculars and sees the gray puff drift away. “Probably dust kicking up from a gravel road,” Bray said. “The bad smoke usually intensifies.”
The drought here began last August. In November — November?! — fire crews battled a blaze that burned 4,800 acres, the largest in this forest's history.
A rare “crowning” fire, burning to the tops of tall oaks and pines, was put out earlier this month, when fire teams recruited from U.S. forestry and wildlife offices in other states almost never are needed here.
Until this summer.
“It's been seven months now and the crews are getting a little cranky,” said Bray. “We talk about it every day: what's it going to be like in the fall if this drought keeps up? That's when we're supposed to have fires.”
| Rick Montgomery, email@example.com