Risk of wildfires remains high in Arkansas

Rain and snow statewide have helped drop the wildfire danger from moderate to low for most of Arkansas on Friday, but continued drought, plus deadfall from December’s ice and snow storms mean wildfire risks haven’t dropped from the radar.

Howard, Little River, Montgomery, Pike, Polk, Scott, Sevier and Yell counties were all under moderate wildfire danger. On Thursday, all but 16 of Arkansas’ counties were listed as having a moderate risk. (See http://arkfireinfo.org)

The calculus that goes into determining when, and how much, to raise the fire danger level in the Forestry Commission’s eight regional districts is complex, said Scott Reed, fire weather supervisor for the Arkansas Forestry Commission.

“Arkansas has management plans for each district, and our district foresters are the ones who set their fire danger rating,” he said. “Basically they take into account drought, past and present precipitation, fire occurrence, and local knowledge of what their fire activity is doing.”

One of the factors affecting fire danger levels is the amount of fuel on the ground, Reed said.

December’s ice storms brought down a lot of fine fuel — small branches, leaves, pine needles — that can feed a forest fire. Also, although the weather has been warming the trees have not started greening up yet, meaning they are more susceptible to fire. They won’t really start leafing out until mid-April, he said.

Even though there has been a lot of rain in Arkansas, “we are still kind of dry,” Scott said.

Dry enough to burn.

On Thursday, forestry commission crews suppressed 27 wildfires consuming 536 acres. Two homes and three outbuildings were threatened, but none was lost.

Now is a good time to “clear away leaves and branches and other vegegation from around the house, and prune and remove dead or dying limbs form over the roof,” said Tamara Walkingstick, associate director of the Arkansas Forest Resources Center of the University of

Arkansas System Division of Agriuculture. “Make a defensible space from wildfires around your home.” (See www.firewise.org/)

Arkansas is still being gripped by drought, according to Thursday’s U.S. Drought Monitor map.

Severe drought, the third highest intensity on the drought monitor’s scale, nearly doubled its area in a week, going from 2.38 percent of the state to 5.49 percent, covering most or parts of Sevier, Little River, Howard, Pike, Hempstead and Lafayette counties.

All categories of drought increased their reach since the March 14 map, covering 60.13 percent of the state, up from 53.74 percent. The defining line runs from Sharp County, through the west side of White County, through the middle of Saline County and western Grant County before turning east through Bradley, Ashley and a piece of southwestern Chicot County.

According to the National Weather Service, 2012 was the 10th-driest year on record in Arkansas.

For more information on forestry, visit www.uaex.edu or arnatural.org/forestry.htm.

Mary Hightower is the assistant director of communications/marketing for the Cooperative Extension Service, University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture.