Friday, August 03, 2012

TOP STORY >> Firefighters are thanked

Leader staff writer

Making use of the sheriff’s address book, Lonoke County Judge Doug Erwin on Thursday e-mailed every reporter who covers the county, thanking the county’s firefighters for their efforts during the drought.

The mass e-mailing was the judge’s first. Asked why he wanted to call attention to firefighters, Erwin said they are unpaid and unrecognized and this is the driest summer in 32 years.

“I’ve lived here for 56 years and this is the driest it’s been since 1980,” he said.

Since May, volunteer fire departments in territories outside city limits have responded to 200 fires, he said.

In his e-mail, the judge mentioned a residential fire Wednesday on Sandhill Road, in territory covered by CS and Z Fire Department near Cabot, where Carl Stracener has been chief for 28 years.

That fire burned a mobile home, some large oak trees and a neighbor’s yard and required four fire departments to contain. But despite the heat, dry grass and low humidity, Stracener said fire calls in his territory are about average for summer. And that, he said, is because the county judge ordered a burn ban and the sheriff is supporting the ban by ticketing anyone who burns.

Lonoke County has been under a burn ban since June 28.

“People have paid attention to the burn ban,” he said. “The sheriff and county judge have said if they’re burning, it’s a ticket.

“It don’t do any good to put on a fire ban if you don’t put some enforcement behind it,” he said.

Burn ban signs are common in Lonoke County when rain is inadequate. But Stracener said this is the first time since he’s been CS and Z fire chief that a county judge has declared a ban. Before, the bans came from the state forestry service, not the county and since the county didn’t impose the bans the county didn’t necessarily enforce them.

Rita Schmitz — Stracener’s sister-in-law, a firefighter with CS&Z for 28 years and Erwin’s assistant — said before Erwin imposed the ban, she and other family members were unable to carry on normal lives.

“We couldn’t go out to eat because we had to stay home and wait for a fire,” Schmitz said.

“I hate for anyone to get a ticket,” she said, “But when that gets in the media then everyone knows they can’t burn.

“The burn ban is a wonderful thing,” she said.

Erwin said “I was putting it off as long as I could knowing the Fourth of July was coming, hoping it would rain.”

The county follows state law when ticketing those who ignore the ban. Burning during a ban is a Class A misdemeanor, which is punishable by up to one year in jail and a fine up to $2,500.

“It’s unfortunate that you have to do that to get people’s attention,” Erwin said. “But in the north end of the county, we’re so populated; you could wipe out a whole subdivision if you’re not careful.”