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How a fuel specialist fights fire with fire in Missouri’s Mark Twain forest

Umatilla Veterans Crew Assistant Foreman Kevin Dugan providing instruction to a Job Corps student on a burnout on the Liberty Fire.
Samuel Bowen
Firefighters manage a prescribed burn in the Mark Twain Forest earlier this year.

Mark Twain National Forest covers more than a million acres in the southern half of Missouri — and twice a year, firefighters mobilize to light controlled, intentional fires, called prescribed burns, as a part of a strategy that actually prevents raging fires from breaking out.

This summer, the strategy is facing scrutiny. A prescribed burn gone awry in New Mexico is being blamed for what is nowthe largest wildfire in the state’s history, raising questions about what happens when a planned burn confronts high winds and changing weather.

Bennie Terrell, fuel specialist for the US Forest Service in Mark Twain Forest, faces the camera while posing with arms outstretched in front of a large tree.
Courtesy of Bennie Terrell
Bennie Terrell, fuel specialist for the US Forest Service in Mark Twain Forest

The crisis hits home for Bennie Terrell, a fuel specialist for the U.S. Forest Service in the Mark Twain Forest.

“My heart goes out to those people, the firefighters and the public that has been impacted by the Hermits Peak fires,” he said on Friday’s St. Louis on the Air. “I know that those guys who wanted to go in and do that prescribed burn, they had good intentions to put that prescribed burn on the ground to reduce the fuels.”

In this context, “fuel” means any kind of flammable material accumulating on the forest floor, like leaf litter, dead vegetation, or even detritus from the timber industry. In Missouri, wildfires often start when the fuel is ignited by a campfire or other human-caused fire.

To rid the forest of that fuel, Terrell and his team turn to the very thing they are trying to prevent: fire. Smaller, controlled blazes keep “fuel” from reaching dangerous levels. But the key is maintaining control.

Terrell said one key is to create “fuel breaks” by clearing gaps within the forest: “That means the fuel is either cut or removed, so the fire will not pass over into an area that we don't want it to burn in.”

These intentional, controlled fires aren’t destructive to the forest environment — just the opposite. After observing decades of burns, Terrell says it’s clear the fires act as a “restorative” force to the plants and animals in the area. He notes that the combined efforts of conservationists and prescribed fires have brought pine oak trees back to the Mark Twain, and along with the trees have come brown-headed nuthatches, birds previously wiped out in Missouri after years of logging.

“We're burning to restore vegetation, or to restore some of the species that may have been hit by [the] poor forest management of 50 years ago,” he said. “We burn to reduce the fuels, but also to restore that ecosystem.”

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Emily Woodbury, Kayla Drake, Danny Wicentowski and Alex Heuer. Avery Rogers is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Danny Wicentowski is a producer for "St. Louis on the Air."