Arkansas fire crews were on high alert going into Independence Day over fears that bans and restrictions on fireworks use might go unheeded.
All of Arkansas is under extreme fire danger, and as of July 3, burn bans had been enacted in 70 of the state’s 75 counties. About a dozen cities, counties or other organizations had cancelled Independence Day fireworks displays, and many communities have banned or put restrictions on fireworks use.
In Woodruff County, Extension Staff Chair Eugene Terhune said, “if you dropped a match, everything would go.”
“We’re going to be on red alert from the start of July 4 through the weekend,” said Mark Cutrer, fire management officer for the Arkansas Forestry Commission. He added that unlawful burning is a Class A misdemeanor punishable by a $1,000 fine and year in jail, and that rangers are writing citations.
Sheila Doughty, FireWise information officer for the Arkansas Forestry Commission, said that when it comes to starting wildfires, burning debris and arson were the main causes in Arkansas last year.
Fireworks were included in the third category, a catch-all labeled “miscellaneous.” This was followed by lightning and equipment use. Doughty said that the last category included lawn mowing and hay baling.
“You can chip a rock and cause a spark” when running a hay baler, said Tom Troxel, associate head-Animal Science, for the University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture. He recommended that if a producer has to bale, to “not put the cutter so low to the ground to lessen the chances of hitting a rock.”
Hay can make fire trouble in another way too.
“If hay is baled with more than 20 percent moisture, the bale builds heat through a chemical reaction,” Troxel said. “The hay itself is an insulator from cooler air outside and concentrates the heat inside the bale, leading the bale to burn.”
Jon Barry, an Extension forester based in Hope, is very familiar with wildfires. He’s also a volunteer firefighter.
He cited a case from early May where the Washington Volunteer Fire Department was called to one hay fire twice in one day. “The farmer lost about 40 acres of his crop and had to pay the fire department a $500 fee to put out the fire.
“State law allows volunteer fire departments to charge a firefighting fee of 10 times the annual dues when annual dues aren’t paid,” said Barry, adding the annual fire department dues are worth the investment, because most insurance companies will give a break in premiums.
Some parts of Arkansas saw rain on July 2 and July 3.
“We need a lot more,” said Jerri Lephiew, Columbia County Extension agent. “It was awful nice to wake up and hear the rain tapping on the window.”
Barry warned that a one-shot rain doesn’t mean the danger has passed. “Don't assume that the burn ban has been lifted just because we had a little rain. When firefighters get called out to put out someone's trash fire during a burn ban, county deputies usually show up, too.”
In his experience, the most preventable causes of fire during times of danger are:
- Ignoring burn bans and burning trash or brush.
- Throwing cigarettes out the window.
- Shooting off fireworks.
- Allowing trailer safety chains to drag and cause sparks.
- Parking vehicles with hot exhaust systems in deep, dry grass or brush.
- Baling hay before it’s properly cured.
- Allowing power lines to come in contact with tree limbs. While the limbs may not catch fire, sparks from the contact might ignite dry grass below.
“People need to think about the potential to start fires with everything they do outdoors,” Barry said. “Before you light anything, think about what a fire might destroy. Not just your yard, but also your home and possibly your neighbors’ too.”
Barry said it’s a good idea to create a defensive space around the home. “Several of the grass fires that Hempstead County departments fought this year have threatened homes. A little work now can save a lot of grief later. Check out the Arkansas Forestry Commission's FireWise program for more information about protecting your home.”
FireWise is a nationwide program that promotes creating defensible space around homes to help protect them from wildfire. For tips on protecting your home from wildfire, visit www.arkansasfirewise.com .
A new Extension fact sheet, “Be Aware and Prepare: Wildfires in Arkansas,” is now available from your county Extension office.
A map of counties with burn bans can be found here , or call your sheriff’s department.
For more information on forestry or crop production, visit www.uaex.edu  or contact your county Extension office.