Forest fires so far this year are low compared with 2012, the director of the Arkansas Forestry Commission said Tuesday.
Joe Fox, a Pine Bluff native who has been director of the forestry commission for just over a year, told the Pine Bluff Rotary Club that so far this year, there have been 367 fires reported, and for the months of January and February, the numbers were “the lowest ever recorded.”
Because of the dry conditions last summer, Fox said that a 12-week period from mid-June to mid-August saw some of the highest totals ever recorded in the state.
That dry weather helped firefighters trying to battle the blazes however, he said, because the winds would die down in the evening, the humidity would go up, and the temperatures would drop after the sun went down.
“We don’t put out fires,” he said. “We try to contain them.”
A federal program called Firewise has also helped, Fox said. The program teaches people who build homes in wooded areas how to create barriers around their property to prevent the spread of fires.
“The Feds are our friends because 17 to 18 percent of our budget comes from them,” Fox said.
The commission also assists rural fire departments throughout the state by acquiring vehicles like 18-wheelers at Department of Defense surplus auctions, then helping rural fire departments convert them to fire trucks.
Fox said that work is done by the Arkansas Department of Correction at the Tucker Unit, where the 18-wheelers are painted, and water tanks are built and added to the trucks.
In one instance, that aided in the escape of two prisoners from Tucker, who hitched a ride on the transport vehicles leaving the prison.
Fox said one of the two fell off and broke his leg shortly after leaving the prison compound, while the second inmate rode on the truck until it was stopped by the Arkansas State Police.
In addition, the commission has three fully certified law enforcement officers who investigate timber thefts and have recovered almost $700,000 for landowners who were the victims of timber thefts.
Fox said the commission received a lot of support from the Arkansas General Assembly during the last legislative session, and will be “able to add a few more people.
“Our people are going to be a little better paid, we’re going to be able to maintain our equipment, and protect the forests of Arkansas,” he said.