WOOLDRIDGE, Mo. — A small town about 20 miles southwest of Columbia is working to pick up the pieces after a massive fire destroyed nearly two dozen structures, leaving many homeless.
Gov. Mike Parson, U.S. Rep. Vicky Hartzler, and other state leaders and agencies visited Wooldridge Wednesday after a brush fire burned across nearly 4,000 acres over the weekend.
“The main thing is we didn’t lose any lives in this event, and we should all be thankful for that,” Parson said while talking to residents and first responders.
What’s left of the homes in downtown Wooldridge is ash, rubble and what used to be vehicles. The smell of smoke and signs of fire, still visible in the town of less than 50 people in Cooper County.
“This was my place over here, I live there for 18 years,” said Wayne Rice said. “Everything I owned was there.”
Rice said he lost his newly renovated home, grateful for his two beagles, Precious and Scooby Dobby Doo for saving his life before the house went up in flames.
“I was sleeping, and I woke up at 3 o’clock and the dogs wanted to go out,” Rice said. “I opened the door, and you couldn’t see but smoke and fire. We had a hard time seeing how to get around the side of the house. By the time we got to the back of the house, the house was on fire. We barely made it out alive.”
More than a handful of families like Rice are now displaced after the Cooper County Fire Chief David Gehm said a fire started near a combine in a field near the house Saturday afternoon. With a lack of rain, warm temperatures and high winds, the fire escalated quickly.
“When it jumped over that levy, there was a wave of fire about 15 to 20 feet in the air,” Rice said. “It was hot and the smoke was so thick I couldn’t even hardly see where I was going.”
Hartzler and Parson thanked law enforcement for their quick response, saying it could have been worse due to the weather conditions.
“I’m heartbroken, like everyone else here, that this happened, but I’m also heartened by the response of the people of this town and this community who stepped up to help their neighbors,” Hartzler said.
Parson told the community the destruction will not meet the threshold of a federal disaster, but he’s offering state resources.
“I will tell you for all these people who live in this area, we’re not going to be able to fix this by ourselves, so it’s going to take all of us trying to figure out what we can do to help people out,” Parson said. “I want to be clear; we want to do whatever we can to help, and we are going to assist, but we aren’t going to have all the answers.”
The governor telling reporters it’s been a tough week across Missouri.
“Is it difficult?,” Parson said. “Sure it’s difficult to be out here today, it’s difficult to what happened in St. Louis a few days ago, to deal with those things, because you never want those things to happen, but the reality of it is, it’s going to happen, so you have to be prepared for that.”
Gehm said nearly 100 firefighters from roughly 50 different departments responded to the scene. He said it took less than 60 minutes for all the structure in downtown Wooldridge to burn to the ground.
Firefighters were able to save the Wooldridge Baptist Church, Wooldridge Community Club and post office as they pumped water from swimming pools to help battle the blaze. The Red Cross is offering resources to Wooldridge residents.