Partners in Rural Fire Protection

In its infancy, the Missouri Department of Conservation faced serious challenges to its mission of conserving the state's forest, fish and wildlife resources. Misuse of fire was so prevalent that Missouri's state forester at the time said that protecting Missouri's forests from the ravages of wildfire was impossible.

Fortunately, efforts to control the spread of fire across Missouri did not cease. In addition to fighting fires, the Conservation Department helped the public understand the dangers of indiscriminate burning.

Although burning under specific parameters and in suitable types of vegetation is a valuable management tool, uncontrolled, repeated fire in Missouri's hardwood forests can cause great damage.

Intense fires that occurred during the early days of the Conservation Department killed or heavily damaged the young trees that had regenerated after the old-growth forest was removed. Even if they survived, fire-damaged trees had little value for wood products. They were also susceptible to breaking and toppling during wind and ice storms.

Wildfires also consumed the protective duff and humus layer of the forest floor, leading to erosion.

In many areas, erosion of the thin top layer of soil undermined an area's ability to regenerate vegetation. Steep, barren hillsides and other areas where the forest floor was unprotected were vulnerable to erosion. Runoff from the bare hills deposited this precious soil into streams and rivers, where it was carried away forever.

Because controlling wildfires was basic to establishing healthy forests, the new Conservation Department made this its priority. It began by organizing forest-fire protection districts in southern Missouri to manage the suppression effort. It worked hard to teach the public about fire prevention. The Department also built fire towers across the entire Ozarks to help detect fires.

The Conservation Department developed or obtained new fire suppression tools, including crawler tractors that pulled rear-mounted plows and gasoline powered leaf blowers. They also formed partnerships for fire suppression with the U.S. Forest Service and with the rural volunteer fire departments that were emerging across the state.

Through tenacious work, the Department began to gain some ground on the "impossible" task of wildfire suppression.

Volunteer fire departments gradually became our most important partners in controlling fire in Missouri. A program developed in the 1960s allowed excess federal property, primarily from the military, to be used by rural volunteer fire departments. The Federal Excess Personal Property (FEPP) Program, as it is now called, loaned excess military property to rural