Wednesday, January 04, 2006

TOP STORY >> Wildfires, Could they happen here?

Leader staff writers

Are wildfires like those spreading through Oklahoma and Texas possible in central Arkansas?
Yes, say local fire officials.

“And it’s getting worse every day,” said assistant fire chief Mark Mahan with the Sylvan Hills Fire Department.
The dry conditions, along with record-setting high temperatures, have caused the National Weather Service to issue a warning that “a high risk of accidental wildfires will exist across Arkansas over the next five to seven days.”

“It’s a tinderbox,” said Gene Johnson, who sometimes works a 12-hour shift at his day job, then gets summoned with other members of the South Bend Volunteer Fire Depart-ment to put out grass and woods fires escaped from burn barrels and leaf piles.

“Low humidity, wind, dry grass — that’s a recipe for disaster, Johnson said. “Humidity is in the teens. Anytime it’s below 60 percent, that’s serious.”

Johnson said he spent much of the holidays driving around the area telling people to put out fires in their burn barrels and leaf piles.
“We had about 15 fires in two days,” Johnson said, referring to the Christmas weekend, when people took advantage of time off to do chores such as burning debris and leaves.

Jacksonville’s fire department has already responded to numerous grass fires in the past week.

“The only thing saving us,” ex-plained Capt. Joe Bratton, “is the lack of large areas of brush within the city. But the county has a number of areas and we’ve already responded at least twice helping them control larger brush fires.”

Central Arkansas counties, along with three-fourths of the state, are under a burn ban as a combination of dry and warm weather makes the local landscape very combustible.

Dry conditions prompted Cabot Fire Chief Phil Robinson to issue a burn ban for the city more than a week ago.
“We’ve been out extinguishing fires ever since,” Robinson said.

“We’re nice about it. We give residents the chance to put their fire out or we can do it for them.”
Most of the calls have been Cabot residents burning brush and piles of leaves, Robinson said.

“With the way the wind was blowing (Monday), a spark from a cigarette thrown out of a car window is all it would have took to cause a fire,” Robinson said.

“Residents must heed the burn ban,” Mahan said. “We’ve got a lot of construction going on and a number of developers are clearing land and want to burn, but they will just have to wait.”

Even though cigarette butts are to blame for a number of the area’s small fires, especially in the highway medians, Mahan says barrel burning is even more dangerous.

“It takes just one ember,” he said.
Mahan, who is also the fire chief of a small department near Conway, said that department battled a brush fire over the weekend. “We nearly lost two houses, all because of someone burning a cardboard box in a barrel,” he said.

According to the National Wea-ther Service, most of Pulaski and White counties are suffering severe drought conditions, while Lonoke County is under a moderate drought. Robinson said it would take a significant amount of rainfall in Cabot for him to lift the burn ban.
“It would take several heavy rains to get down under the leaves to really soak the grass and ground good,” Robinson said.
Jim Grant, with the state forestry commission, said, “We’ve got burn bans in 54 counties.”

With two exceptions, everything west of an imaginary line running from Fulton County south to Ashley County is in high fire danger, while everything east generally is designated “moderate fire danger,” he said. The exceptions are White County, which has a high fire danger and Lonoke County, which has moderate fire danger.

Those designations are based on formulas that take into consideration the amount of moisture in fire fuel, the number of days since it last rained, the amount of moisture in the ground, the number of days since a fire and the number of recent fires, according to Grant. The fuel moisture content is gauged by putting standardized sticks out in the weather, then weighing them, he said. Grant said winds in the three-to-six mph range were of little concern, but that winds of 15 mph gusting to 30 can inflame a fire, and push it ahead, and on Monday the National Weather Service issued red flag warnings because of high winds. Windy days are possible again later in the week.

“I saw a report of this woman in Oklahoma, 10 minutes after she first smelled smoke, her house was engulfed,” Robinson said. “That’s how bad those fires are.”

That’s what concerns Bratton.
“We are all worried about how quick a wildfire can threaten a home,” he said Tuesday shortly after the department received another brush fire call.