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Fire forces Missouri town to evacuate; Over 50 state fire departments send help

A fire is now under control after spreading nearly 5,000 acres across Cooper Co. It happened Saturday afternoon and crews were up all night controlling hot spots.

WOOLDRIDGE, Mo. — The town of Wooldridge, Missouri, has been evacuated as fires burned across the area.

In Cooper County, the fire originated from a combine that caught fire as it was plowing a field, officials told KOMU.

Cooper County Fire Protection District were dispatched around 3:30 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 22, and crews were up all night controlling hot spots. 

Officials estimate the fire spread nearly 3,000 to 5,000 acres across Cooper Co. 

Fire agencies in St. Charles County pooled their resources to send help, said Orchard Farm Fire Chief Jeremy Hollrah.

"St. Charles agencies have come together to send a tanker task force," the fire chief said. "That's five water trucks with roughly 3,500 gallons of water each and about 15 firefighters."

Officials with St. Louis County fire agencies were discussing available resources to see what they can send to help Saturday evening, Metro West Fire Protection District spokesperson Mike Thiemann said.

An engineer with the Jamestown Rural Fire Protection District, Stephen Derendinger said, half the town was burnt.

“It’s devastated,” Derendinger said.

Some people were treated for burns, but the fire hasn't killed anyone, Cooper County Fire Protection District assistant chief Russell Schmidt said. The whole town was evacuated and many of the evacuees gathered at Fire Station 3.

Cooper County Fire Protection District estimated that about 23 buildings "were either destroyed or heavily damaged," according to a Facebook post on Sunday, Oct. 23.

Firefighters used pools for water to push back lingering flames in Wooldridge.

They were able to save the Wooldridge Baptist Church building, post office and the Wooldridge Community Club.

According to a tweet from the Missouri Division of Fire Safety, firefighters from Cooper County, Jamestown, California, Howard County, Boone County, Clifton and Otterville all responded to the fire. 

At least 1,600 acres were at risk from the fire, including private land and conservation areas, Missouri Department of Transportation communications director Mike O’Connell told KOMU.

As of 8 p.m. Saturday, the fire in Wooldridge was mostly contained. Schmidt confirmed Greis Trucking and Excavating Co., out of Booneville, was bringing bulldozers and equipment to assist the Missouri Department of Conservation to prevent the spread of the fire.

O’Connell said many departments coming together to assist was key in containing the fire.

Tim Taylor, a retired firefighter who was helping on the scene, said most of the fire spread north toward Interstate 70 by wind.

According to MoDOT Central District, I-70 was closed going both directions as of 6:45 p.m. Saturday as smoke on the highway gave drivers little-to-no visibility. Eastbound traffic was rerouted through Boonville, while westbound traffic was rerouted through New Franklin and Boonville.

Since then, I-70 has reopened in both directions.

O'Fallon Fire Department was one of the over 50 agencies, from across the state of Missouri, that stepped in to help fight the fire, according to Assistant Chief Andy Parrish. 

"We're used to going to house fires, where you see a house destroyed, but when you see 20 in a smaller community like that, that's just devastating for those guys," he said.

'Shock' is how Parrish described what his firefighters saw on Saturday night in Cooper County.

"We're really the only agency, like right along the 70 corridor, that has a tanker, so we were automatically booked in on that," he said.

The truck the O'Fallon Fire Department took to Wooldridge carried 3 thousand gallons of water, which Parrish said, was their primary function.

"What they were doing is supplying the pumpers that were trying to put out hotspots and save what property can be saved, so they had a need for water, and that's what these tankers do. It's like a mobile fire hydrant," he said.

Pictures from O'Fallon firefighters on the scene show just how extensive the damage was. 

While Saturday's incident was an accident, according to Parrish, the weather over the weekend was a perfect recipe for flames to start. 

That's why he's asking everyone to be careful.

"You got warm weather, low humidity, and then you add to it these high winds and things can get out of control," Parrish said.

Even though the O'Fallon firefighters, like so many others, worked overnight to control the disaster, Parrish said, they'll never hesitate to help out a neighbor.

"What we have, we're happy to share," he said.

Cooper County Fire Protection District confirmed that one person was injured with non-life-threatening injuries from the fire.

Ten individuals were displaced overnight and are currently being sheltered at the Open Bible Praise Center in Boonville, as of Sunday, Oct. 23. The Red Cross is also helping them out.

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