By NOREEN HYSLOP
If ever there was a test of an emergency situation in Stoddard County, it was Tuesday. Several emergency responders came together for a common cause when brush fires swept an 11-mile area from north of Dexter along a path on Highway 25 south to Bernie.
A total of 50 firefighters joined in the effort to extinguish the flames that were quickly fueled by the extremely dry conditions plaguing Southeast Missouri.
The first call received at the Dexter Fire Department came at 12:05 p.m. Within 30 minutes, neighboring departments from Bernie, Bloomfield, Essex and Dudley were summoned.
The operation, which should have been no easy task for a fire chief with barely six months under his belt, proceeded like a well-oiled machine.
Setting up the command center in the outlying area just north of the city was newly appointed Chief Don Seymore who took on the task of organizing five departments and 50 men (and one woman) as they went about the business of securing an 11-mile stretch that threatened homes, crops, outbuildings, and most importantly, lives.
When the calls for help went out, the response was immediate. Sirens wailed from the north, south, east and west, all converging upon Dexter in a matter of minutes.
To witness firemen rushing to the scene of a blaze or an accident, one rarely focuses on the individuals aboard the vehicles and just what was involved in getting them on the scene.
Some are young and some are not so young. The come from all walks of life - they are car salesmen and factory workers, appliance repairmen and the self-employed. There are electricians and chemical sales reps. Including the chief, there are only four full-time firemen in the city of Dexter. The chief also owns his own monument business.
Most firemen report to their regular place of employment every day. But their fire gear is never far out of reach, and when their radios sound they drop everything, and their attention turns to the task at hand. Sometimes it's as minor as a trash fire, but oftentimes the task is not that simple. Tuesday was one of those days when it was not that simple.
One has to admire the employers of these men and women who realize the importance of allowing these folks to drop everything at the workplace and rush to wherever they are needed at the sound of a radio signal.
On Tuesday, as each individual or group arrived on scene, Seymore called the shots. For nearly eight hours in the heat, the calls came. Propane tanks were positioned in close proximity to the tracks in at least two populated areas, one in the Cottonbelt and one in Misty Acres. Firemen were directed to secure those areas. Essex and Bloomfield firefighters reported to an area near the tracks in Misty Acres where several house trailers were threatened by the crackling fires approaching from the tracks. They were spared disaster through the coordinated efforts of those departments, one who sustained injuries while battling the grassfires, but who returned to the scene to help again after being treated at the local hospital.
Hardly a moment passed during the first four hours following the initial call that Seymore didn't handle an incoming call on the radio. Along with handling the firefighter's efforts, he was updating the situation to the Stoddard County Ambulance District personnel on the scene, the Highway Patrol, Sheriff's deputies on the scene, and local police. All the while, uppermost on his mind was the safety of his and the neighboring city's emergency responders.
There are no fire hydrants in the Misty Acres subdivision. Tankers were used and periodic runs to replenish the water supply were ordered. As new fires were sighted and reported, Seymore ordered equipment and firefighters to location after location down the line of the railroad tracks.
Weary firemen, whose limits were tested after hours on the scene in full fire gear, were seen one at a time on the ground or bent at the waist downing bottled water trying to hydrate before returning to the brush and structure fires that kept them on their toes throughout the long day.
Several firefighters' efforts focused on the Michael Drew home in Misty Acres, a home with which many on the the local department were familiar. It was just over a year ago they had been summoned to the Drew home for an interior fire that left the house in ruins. A new home is only months old where the old once stood. A shed behind the home threatened to do the same again, but firefighters were determined not to let that happen. The home did sustain damage to the rear siding from the extreme heat of the fire, but flames never entered the residence -- one of many feats accomplished Tuesday.
And there were many more. Couples and their children could be seen pouring buckets and even glasses full of water on their yards in attempts to ward off the flames -- happy to see the red trucks with the men dressed in yellow approaching their rural roads.
It was a combined effort with several agencies and individuals coming together for a common cause that resulted in no lives being lost Tuesday and no homes destroyed. Anyone in the area of the rural fires as they rushed their way toward Misty Acres and the Cottonbelt would never have imagined at the fire's outset that the results could be so positive.
Few saw Seymore walking the tracks at 3:30 a.m. Wednesday with hand-held tanks putting out areas that had rekindled. It's sometimes a thankless job, but not for those whose job it is.
All thanks go to every agency, every dispatcher, every officer, and most importantly, every firefighter who had a part in making Tuesday's potential disaster just a bad memory.
It was a job well done.