Leader staff writer
It may seem odd that burn bans are in effect now when temperatures are below freezing, but risk of wildfires is high across the state, according to the Arkansas Forestry Commission.
About 40 counties — more than half the state — are under a burn ban.
Pulaski and White counties have been under burn bans since Tuesday, and Lonoke County has been a burn ban since Thursday.
“It is the weirdest (burn ban) I have ever issued,” White County Judge Michael Lincoln said.
He said, in his eight years in office, it is the first winter burn ban he has ordered. Lincoln said he is following the advice of the Forestry Commission and local fire chiefs.
“From what I hear, it is the uncut dry grasses in the fields that are causing a fuel issue. It is so unusual for the grasses to be so dry; you can see water in the ditches. Early in the morning there is moisture, but, when the winds kick up, it is gone,” Lincoln said.
Lonoke County Judge Doug Erwin does not recall ever issuing a burn ban in the winter.
“Even though we had rain, it is still dry. The biggest factor is the winds,” Erwin said.
According to Pulaski County Judge Buddy Villines’ office, the last time it issued a burn ban during winter was December 2005 and January 2006.
According to the National Weather Service, the waves of cold air are the culprits. With cold systems cutting through the state on an almost weekly basis, moisture from the gulf is being cut off.
Even though January’s precipitation is down just 0.11 of an inch, the problem is that most of that hit in one or two days. There has been nothing since.
Forecasters expect the trend to continue at least through Friday of next week.
After a mild weekend with temperatures Sunday hitting around 60, the cold bites back with Monday’s high slated for 38, and then Tuesday and Wednesday will not be above freezing. By Friday, it will seem almost summery with high temperatures in the mid-40s.
Central Arkansas Water said, when the temperature drops below freezing, residents should “leave a thin stream of water running from the cold-water tap because moving water is less likely to freeze.”
• Chief Carl Stracener with the Campground, Sylvania and Mount Zion (CS and Z) Volunteer Fire Department said it has responded to 13 grass fires in the past two weeks. Three of those fires have spread to buildings and homes.
“It’s worse than it has been in the past two to three years. People burning household trash on the ground caused all but one. One fire was caused by a cigarette thrown on the side of the road,” Stracener said.
According to the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality, it is against state law to burn household garbage.
• Lonoke Volunteer Fire Department Chief Jimmy Wallace said they had extinguished six grass fires this month, and two grass fires occurred on Thursday. A downed power line on Bob Long Road caused one fire. The other fire was started by a resident who was burning leaves and had it under control, but the fire department had to put it out to adhere to the burn ban.
Wallace said the fire department put out two fires in ditches. He is not sure if the causes were from cigarettes being tossed out of cars or by farmers who are clearing the ditches with fire, which is not uncommon, according to Wallace.
• Tri-Community Volunteer Fire Department reported eight wildfires in the past two weeks. Chief Greg Baldwin said one fire burned a house down, and a second fire damaged a barn. Most of the fires happened last Saturday. The fire department serves the Woodlawn, Sylvania and Oak Grove communities.
Baldwin said, around noon last Saturday, Tri-Community Fire Department was called to its first fire of the day at a minnow farm off Earl Verser Road. Someone was cleaning up and burning a pile of leaves beside a barn. The wind pushed the flames to the barn.
“It burned a tractor and some equipment. It did considerable damage,” Baldwin said.
While crews were on the scene, a second fire occurred on Cinel Loop. Baldwin said a grass fire spread and burned down a house completely. After putting out those fires, the fire department was called again to help to extinguish four grass fires.
“We didn’t stop from noon to 8 o’clock that night,” the chief said.
Baldwin said Saturday was warm and sunny and some people wanted to clean up, but it was windy. “People were dying to get out and burn something,” he said.
• Austin Volunteer Fire Department Chief Steve Bettis said his department responded to two grass fires inside the city limits in the past two weeks.
“One fire approached a residence, but it was stopped before any damage occurred,” Bettis said.
• Butlerville Volunteer Fire Department firefighter Jody Webb said the department recently extinguished one grass fire in its coverage area near Prairie County, and it assisted other fire departments with two fires.
• Cabot Fire Chief Phil Robinson said his department put out four grass and brush fires in the past two weeks.
• Mountain Springs Volunteer Fire Department Fire Chief Andrew Williams said no wildfires have occurred in his area.
“I believe most of our people in the district are smart enough to know not to burn when it is windy,” Williams said.
• Lt. Butch Chapman of the South Bend Volunteer Fire Department said his department has responded to at least four grass fires.
Firefighters there also assisted another department with a grass fire that spread to a building.
• Fire Chief Randy Staley of the Ward Volunteer Fire Department said, in the past two weeks, the department has been called out to four grass fires and assisted other departments with three structure fires.
• North Pulaski Volunteer Fire Department Chief Randy Blakey said his department has responded to four grass and brush fires in the past couple of weeks. He blames low humidity and high winds for the increase in grass fires.
• Capt. Tommie Golden of the Gravel Ridge Fire Department said it responded to three brush fires in the past two weeks. One of the fires burned a small backyard shed.
• Runyan Acres Volunteer Fire Department Chief Ken Partridge said it has taken three calls for grass fires since Jan. 14.
“The way everything is, that’s not too bad at all. It is really dry. Everybody needs to be really careful. Don’t do any outdoor burning until we get some rain,” Partridge said.
• Jacksonville Fire Department Battalion Chief Bob Thornton said the city had only one grass fire recently, which occurred Thursday, and they assisted the South Bend Volunteer Fire Department with another one.
“We don’t have a lot of rural areas in Jacksonville and don’t have the number of grass fires we used to have,” Thornton said.
• Fire Chief David Teague said the Sherwood Fire Department extinguished only one grass fire in the past couple of weeks.
“We don’t have but eight to 10 grass fires a year,” Teague said. He said those types of fires mostly occur in wooded areas of the county.
• Beebe Fire Department firefighter Patrick Valadie said it has responded to 10 grass and brush fires in the past two weeks.
Valadie said the number of fires have been evenly split between areas inside city limits and in the county.