HOPE, Ark. — Winter winds, low humidity and dried vegetation are an ideal combination for wildfires, say extension foresters with the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture.
Jefferson and Lincoln counties are currently under a burn ban.
And there’s one more factor that adds to the fire danger, said Jon Barry, an extension forester based at the Southwest Research and Extension Center in Hope. Barry is also a volunteer firefighter.
“Unfortunately, since people don’t expect burn bans during the winter, they don’t check before they burn,” he said. “The result can be a citation for burning during the ban. People need to be aware that many rural fire departments automatically request a deputy when responding to calls about burning during burn bans.
“Those fires can quickly endanger people’s homes and livelihoods,” Barry said, adding that as a firefighter, “We don’t have a sense of humor about burning during burn bans.”
The problems that exist during summer droughts “are the same problems we face during winter droughts,” he said. “The biggest problem that we face is that people don’t think about vegetation being bone dry during the winter, even after rains.”
Because of winter’s low humidity and winds, “above-ground portions of grasses and other fine vegetation tends to dry out quickly, even when the soil is soppy wet,” Barry said. “Most people assume that it is safe to burn since we had a rain two days ago. That often is not the case in the winter.”
And dry grasses aren’t the only hazards.
“Folks need to understand that fallen, dry leaves are excellent fire starters,” said Tamara Walkingstick, associate director of the Arkansas Forest Resources Center.
People who are burning materials may not be prepared if a flying spark ignites a fire in freezing temperatures. With a lake wind advisory posted for parts of Arkansas on Thursday, sparks would have an easy time taking flight.
“This is a problem if your outdoor spigot is frozen,” she said. “You may end up trying to haul water from inside the house, losing precious time to a hungry fire.”
Barry warns that “if you accidentally start a grass fire, don’t try to put it out. Call 911 first, then try to put the fire out.”
In addition to open burning, other common wildfire starters are sparks from braking, hot exhaust pipes coming in contact with dry leaves or grass and cigarette butts tossed from car windows.
The wildfire danger is high in about a third of Arkansas counties, with the rest of the state having a moderate wildfire danger. Information about burn bans and wildfire danger can be found at www.arkfireinfo.org.