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Fighting fire with fire

A prescribed burn Friday afternoon at St. Joe State Park will ultimately benefit the forest by promoting growth of native species and prevent a major ground fire from occurring in the future according to officials on the scene.

Approximately 400 acres of the park’s Blankshire Savanna were set ablaze. The area was last burned in 2006. Officials said they try to burn the area every three to five years to reduce the amount of ground fuel, such as built up leaves and deadfall, in order to prevent a major forest fire.

A summer wildfire in the Mark Twain National Forest near Bixby consumed approximately 600 acres and days to days to contain. Departments from across southeast Missouri responded to the blaze. Park officials use prescribed burns to prevent the Bixby fire scenario from happening in the future.

“By doing these burns after a season like we had last year with drought conditions it’s less likely that wildfire that could get out of control,” said Bill Bonnell, superintendent, at St. Joe State Park. “The Bixby fire was probably a case where the leaf litter was allowed to build up over decades. Here, as you can see it’s down to the ground basically.”

The use of prescribed fire also benefits the growth of several native species. Pine trees, such as the short leaf pine present in many state parks, have evolved in the presence of fire and depend on it to help open the tightly sealed resin filled cones also known as “serotinous” cones.

“We had a prescribed burn through our pine-oak woodland zone,” said Ken McCarty, Chief of the natural resource management section of Missouri’s Division of State Parks. “We’re tying to have a very open type of oak pine forest dominated by post and white oaks. These are the hardwood species the deer, the quail and the turkey like.”

Fires also promote the growth of wildflowers such as the yellow coneflower and the Indian paintbrush in the spring. They also promote native grass species by reducing built up ground clutter. During the period of early settlement in Missouri, lighting strikes and fires set by Native Americans kept the land in an open, arid state. Management officials are trying to promote savanna regions in State Parks through the use of fire.

“We also want a lot of light getting down to the ground to promote a lot of wildflowers. This park is surprising in the diversity of native plant life it has. It’s really phenomenal, what all is here,” McCarty said.  

The animals living in the area are not really affected by the fire. Animals have adapted in its presence over thousands of years and know what to do when they sense the presence of a fire. Smaller critters will burrow into the ground or seek shelter in hollow trees. Deer and birds will simply run and fly away.

“The kinds of wildlife that are native to these forests are adapted to fire’s presence. Deer will be in here tonight looking for acorns that are uncovered. It’s very rare that in a prescribed burn setting like this, especially during the dormant season, wildlife is affected. These fires are very mild and slow moving. They are not like the raging fires you see on the news in Colorado,” said McCarty.

St. Joe State Park is one of about 25 parks where prescribed burns take place at regular intervals. In total, about 38,000 acres are burned at three to five year intervals. In the eastern parks district, which stretches from St. Louis to the “Bootheel” Region in the south and Onondaga Cave State Park in the west, the fire stewardship crew will burn about 9,000 acres this year.

“Every other district kind of takes care of their own fires, but we have so many acres that are actively burning in this side of the state that we have a designated stewardship crew of one full time person and one seasonal and myself. We go around all the parks in the district and put in the fire lines. We’re pretty much at every burn. We help coordinate each burn and a lot of times we’re the burn boss. We get the crew together and we make these things happen,” said St. Francois State Park Naturalist Jamie Hubert.

More information on prescribed burns can be found on the web by searching for the term on the Missouri State Park’s website at or the Missouri Department of Conservation’s website at

Pat Pratt is a reporter for the Daily Journal and can be reached at 573-431-2010 ext. 172 or

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