ST. LOUIS -- The grass fire erupted seemingly out of nowhere at Grand View Burial Park in Hannibal. Co-owner Doug Hosmer saw the smoke and figured he and some workers could knock out the blaze with shovels.
Maybe he could in most years, but not this summer. About four-fifths of Missouri is considered to be in extreme or severe drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. The cemetery grass in Hannibal, brittle and dry, was mere kindling for the blaze, which spread so quickly that Hosmer and his workers had to sprint to safety.
“We just turned and ran to the road, and the fire got there as fast as I could run,” Hosmer said Wednesday.
Last week’s fire was quickly contained once firefighters arrived. But the blaze, apparently started when a passing motorist on U.S. 61 tossed a lit cigarette, was evidence of the fire risk wrought by the dangerous drought.
It has been a hot, dry, dangerous summer in Missouri and for much of the nation. Brian Fuchs of the National Drought Mitigation Center in Nebraska said 61 percent of the continental U.S. is in drought, including 11.6 percent in extreme drought or worse. The amount of drought-stricken land is the largest on record, though Fuchs said the duration doesn’t yet compare to the Dust Bowl years of the 1930s and a drought in the 1950s.
Rainfall has been almost nonexistent in the state since early May and the forecast offers little hope of relief—the outlook through next week is for more hot weather and slim chance of rain.
Missouri summers are typically hot but also humid, and that humidity helps keep the fire risk down.
Not this year.
The Mark Twain National Forest in southern Missouri typically sees just one or two wildfires during summer months. But since June, firefighters have put out 50 fires that have burned more than 4,000 acres, said Jody Eberly, fire management officer for the forest.
“It doesn’t take much to get a fire going in these extreme weather conditions,” Eberly said.
Fire risk is also elevated elsewhere in the state:
In north-central Missouri’s Chariton County, hay became so overheated that it spontaneously ignited, destroying the barn it was in, along with a tractor, baler and truck.
In Jefferson County near St. Louis, three fires started when trees that fell over from lack of water struck power lines.
In southeast Missouri, a fire started along a railroad track, spread for several miles along the dry right of way and ended up in Dexter before it was put out.
In southwest Missouri, a welder’s torch was believed to be responsible for a fire that burned about 700 acres Tuesday. It took at least seven fire crews working through the day to bring the blaze under control.
Mike O’Connell of the Missouri Department of Public Safety said the fires are a drain on both resources and workers. Multiple departments must respond and ambulance crews are sent as a precaution in case firefighters are overcome by the combined heat of the weather and the fire
Missouri officials are urging caution for anything that could start a blaze, even activities such as grilling. Simple things, such as mowing or riding off-road vehicles, can cause normally harmless sparks that can start a fire because grass and vegetation are so dry. People experiencing power outages are asked to use flashlights, not candles.
And O’Connell cautioned against carelessly discarding cigarettes, noting that the Missouri Department of Transportation has seen a big increase in fires along highway medians.