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'Don't know where to really start': Wooldridge begins to recover after devastating fire

WOOLDRIDGE — The village post office was a structurally intact island in the Wooldridge bottoms on Monday.

To its immediate west, the Wooldridge Baptist Church was boarded up as a restoration company inspected the interior. Other structures within a dozen feet of the post office were crumpled piles of burnt metal after a rampaging wildfire Saturday, fueled by wind and drought, devastated a swath of residential Wooldridge, farmland and part of a wildlife refuge.

No one died, and only one person was injured in a town with a population of 61.

Across Main Street, a flattened trailer, the smelted shell of a vehicle and heaps of rubble puffed smoke into the air, which was the first glimpse of the blackened buildings in Wooldridge. In total, 23 buildings were destroyed by the flames in the lowland blocks of the rural Cooper County town.

"A big black cloud of smoke came through. And we sat there for about an hour and watched everything burn."
Emmanuel McComb

Some structures were in need of repair or maintenance before the weekend blaze, some Wooldridge residents said, a sign that parts of town never quite recovered from the 1993 flood.

On Monday morning, Bryan Mahoney arrived at the post office to rebuild a piece of decking, a previously scheduled repair that seemed more ominous among the charred backdrop.

“When I showed up, I didn’t know if there would be anything to work on,” Mahoney said 40-some hours after the weekend wildfire. He noticed only a small hole burned in the decking.

“It didn’t get touched,” said David Giles, Wooldridge’s part-time postmaster. “It’s a miracle.”

Those who witnessed the Saturday fire suggested the building was a priority.

Alexis Nixon, who lives on the largely unaffected higher ground to the west in Wooldridge, said she heard fire crews shouting “protect the post office.”

At the other end of Main Street, Cooper County fire crews still grappled with the last gasps of flame and soybean-tinged fumes on a combine Monday. County officials haven’t yet specified what caused the destructive blaze, but everyone in the village pointed to the combine as a smoking gun.

Among the ash blanketing the residential lots between the post office and the combine, the McComb family was digging a grave for their dog, Olaf.

“A big black cloud of smoke came through. And we sat there for about an hour and watched everything burn,” Emmanuel McComb said. “And then we asked a couple of firefighters to help us go look and see if maybe any of our animals have made it.”

All four of their goats made it through the fire, but the family said they are tending to a burn wound on one of them.

The McComb family went to the Open Bible Praise Center Monday afternoon, which served as an overnight shelter for those displaced. By that time, many of the other displaced residents had found shelter elsewhere in the community.

The temporary shelter closed Monday, although the Red Cross provided a space for residents affected by the fire to pick up items such as clothes and toys.

Emmanuel McComb brought his family to the center to access Red Cross resources, and for his kids to pick some items from the donated goods.

“It's been so blurry. I'm not gonna lie, like I struggled to even make it here because I was like, 'We gotta go to Walmart first,” McComb said. “Then we need to come here. And then we have to go out to Wooldridge and then we have to come back here.”

William and Kelsey Knox, whose home was also affected by the fire, came to the shelter to check on a neighbor they did not see during the evacuation.

“He was OK. Come to find out he was just probably out driving around somewhere clearing his head,” William Knox said.

The couple said they were avoiding the Wooldridge area after the fire and have spent the past few days with family, calling their insurance company. They saw smoke roll into their living room, and immediately grabbed their pets to flee the scene.

“There's always fires in that field just because they have to do that to get it ready for next year,” Kelsey Knox said. “And this is the first time it got out of control."

On Monday afternoon, Wooldridge Mayor Kelly Murphy walked with officials from the State Emergency Management Agency on a loop through the smoldering neighborhood.

As they passed, Emmanuel McComb yelled: “This dog’s blood is on your hands."

Conversations around Wooldridge revealed something of a disconnect running along state highway 179, which splits the unscathed hillside portion of the town and the torched bottomland.

It was a gap that Richard Wilman, a former Wooldridge mayor, realized when he took office.

“I didn’t know about that until I became mayor and they’re like, ‘Oh, you’re a highlander,’” he said.

Those up on the hill escaped the town's last natural disaster, when the Missouri River flooded the Wooldridge bottoms in 1993. The lower portion of the town rebuilt but didn't economically or aesthetically recover, some residents said.

“Before the flood in ‘93, people were taking care of their houses,” he said. “They were painted. They were mowed.”

Due to the state of the houses before the fire, some members of the Wooldridge community don’t seem bent on rebuilding. Wilman doesn’t know if it’s prudent given the potential for flooding.

“We’re thinking a park would be great,” Wilman said, which would require clearing and acquiring much of the fire-damaged property.

Those who live on the fire-damaged land don't share the same clarity around their future.

About 18 months after moving into his home, McComb said his head spins when he thinks about the future.

“I don't know where to really start. We're kind of here trying to get a sort of glimmer, or glimpse look at, at life and trying to get back to what you call a normal life,” he said. “I don't know what normal looks like anymore.”

The Columbia Missourian is a community news organization managed by professional editors and staffed by Missouri School of Journalism students who do the reporting, design, copy editing, information graphics, photography and multimedia.