Fires in national forest take the home of 84-year-old Protem man

The Protem-area home of 84-year-old Les Tennis was completely destroyed in last week’s wildfire, which was named the “Rozell fire” by Mark Twain National Forest officials. Tennis escaped with nothing but the clothes he was wearing. Photo courtesy Ron Yarger.

Protem resident Joe Hunter credits a fire-suppression airplane that dropped fire retardant with saving his home Thursday as a blaze burned 1,900 acres in the Mark Twain National Forest and adjoining area near the Ozark-Taney county line. Photos courtesy Ron Yarger.

Eighty-four-year-old Les Tennis is living temporarily with his brother-in-law, Joe Hunter, after a fast-moving wildfire last week burned nearly 2,000 acres in the Mark Twain National Forest near Protem – but destroyed only one structure: Tennis’ longtime home. 

MTNF spokesperson Cody Norris said in news releases Thursday and Friday that federal, state, county and local firefighters responded to nine wildfires in four of the national forest’s districts scattered throughout southern Missouri. The largest blaze was the Rozell fire in the Protem area of Taney County, just over the Ozark County line near Highways 160 and 125. 

The fire was reported at 12:15 p.m. Thursday, and the heavy smoke it produced forced nearby Mark Twain School to dismiss classes at 2 p.m. School superintendent Joe Donley told KY3-TV that the school sent its students home Thursday “right before they closed the roads.” Area roadways soon reopened, and classes resumed on Friday as the fire continued to burn but caused less smoke in the vicinity of the school. 

Norris said approximately 100 area firefighters and emergency management personnel from the Missouri State Highway Patrol and the U.S. Forest Service, Missouri Department of Conservation and area fire departments responded to the Rozell fire under “a unified command” led by Forest Service incident commander Reggie Bray. The cause of the fire is still under investigation, Norris said, but once started, it was fueled by dry vegetation and unseasonably warm temperatures nearing 80 degrees plus relative humidity of approximately 44 percent. In addition, “Gusty southwesterly winds are driving the fires’ movement,” Norris said. 

Helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft dropped water and fire retardant on the blazes. Joe Hunter credits one of them with saving his home, located near Les Tennis’ house that burned. 

“The airplane came over and saved my house,” Hunter told the Times Monday. He had rushed to help his brother-in-law as flames neared their properties. Tennis told KY3, “It come up through the grass and up over the hill. Then it got in the bottom of the house. Then it got inside the house, and we tried to put it out with a water hose. We just couldn’t do it. So it burnt my house down and all my life savings.”

Hunter said Tennis “lost everything but the clothes he was wearing.” Donations of clothing and household items for his brother-in-law are welcome, he said. Tennis wears size 30 (waist), 34 (length) pants, medium shirts and size 9 or 9 1/2 shoes. For more information about how to help Tennis, call Hunter at 417-545-1486.

Lisa Jennings at the Pioneer Store in Protem is collecting cash donations to help Tennis. Those who can help may make checks payable to Les Tennis and drop them off at the store or mail them to Jennings at Pioneer Store, 3244 S. Highway 125, Protem, MO 65733.

Norris said in a Friday afternoon news release that crews had made significant progress toward containing the Rozell fire Thursday using back-burning operations. He added that during the night, a fire-break line was constructed completely around the 1,900-acre fire, “and crews are strengthening that line today.” 

Rain that fell over the weekend and on Monday finished putting out the fires.

These additional fires occurred about the same time as the Rozell fire in parts of the Mark Twain National Forest in or near Ozark County: 

The 1.22-acre Pinnacle fire near Hercules Glade; the Blackjack fire, a 3-acre blaze near the Rozell fire; the Topaz fire, which burned 2.7 acres in the Willow Springs unit of the MTNF Ava/Cassville/CW Ranger District; and the Blue Spring fire near the North Fork Recreation Area, known locally as Hammond Camp. That fire was estimated at17.3 acres.

MTNF fire management officer Jim Cornelius said Friday, “The response yesterday was a perfect example of the excellent coordination between the highly trained resources at the federal, state, county and local level. I am thankful for our good working partnerships with the other agencies and with the volunteer fire departments, and want to say thank you for everyone pulling together to stop these multiple wildfires from spreading and causing more destruction.”

Other MTNF fires occurred last week in the Houston/Rolla/Cedar Creek Ranger District, the Potosi-Fredericktown Ranger District and the Eleven Point and Poplar Bluff Ranger District.

Ozark County Times

504 Third Steet
PO Box 188
Gainesville, MO 65655

Phone: (417) 679-4641
Fax: (417) 679-3423