BIXBY — Missouri residents were urged anew Monday to resist setting off fireworks in the wake of grass and timber fires raging throughout much of the rain-starved state and a suspicious fire that blackened hundreds of acres of a national forest.
The U.S. Forest Service said law enforcement officers suspect arson in a blaze that has scorched some 620 acres of the Mark Twain National Forest in southeast Missouri's Iron County since Thursday. About 45 miles to the east, a second fire started near Fredericktown after a mower hit a rock, causing a spark, and ensuing flames burned another 50 acres of the forest.
Containment lines have been placed around both of those fires, and the forest service hopes to have both blazes fully controlled by midweek.
No injuries have been reported.
Authorities urged people to be cautious as the July 4 holiday approached, warning that the excessively dry conditions have turned much of the state into a potential tinderbox vulnerable to even the tiniest spark from lighted fireworks or carelessly discarded smoldering cigarettes.
Ben Webster, a fire program supervisor for the Missouri Department of Conservation, said while the blazes were reported statewide, they were generally south of Interstate 70 and staying relatively small.
"The fires that are occurring are staying below 50 acres," he said. "There have been a couple of grass fires, but we're seeing a lot of fires just from fireworks. If people can hold off and not light them, that will prevent some of these fires."
Firefighters grappling with temperatures in the upper 90s and low 100s shouldn't expect such warmth to abate, although the southern section of the state might get a little relief Tuesday, when there's a chance for scattered thunderstorms, the National Weather Service's Dan Hawblitzel said.
"Through Friday, we're expecting little change in the weather pattern," said Hawblitzel, a meteorologist in Kansas City. "We expect little if any rainfall (in much of the state), and that spells continued fire danger. We see no improvement at all this week."
Gov. Jay Nixon surveyed by air Saturday the charred stretches of the 1.5-million acre Mark Twain forest, then noted that the state could face a long summer of battling fires amid forecasts for persistently soaring temperatures at times into the 100s.
"These are conditions that haven't been seen in several years," Webster said. "The grass is dry, the fallen timber and limbs in the forest are very dry. Temperatures averaging 100 days (expected in coming days) are not helping."
Numerous Missouri communities already have barred backyard fireworks or canceled their public displays.
The Mark Twain fire came on the heels of an especially dry spring in which several fires scarred about 8,500 acres during six days in early March, including three that were each responsible for charring more than 1,000 acres, Webster has said.
The U.S. Forest Service has barred camp or stove fires at the Mark Twain National Forest, and the Missouri Department of Natural Resources — overseer of state parks and historic sites — has forbidden campfires at a growing list of places.
Nixon has ordered the state's National Guard to ready personnel and supplies to support firefighting operations, if needed.