Wildfire Outbreak in Ark. Forces Evacuations, Destroys Homes

January 10, 2006

Arkansas had its first major wildfire outbreak of the season as at least 43 fires blazed statewide, with one 3,000-acre arson fire in Ashley County that destroyed eight structures and forced evacuations still burning as of Jan. 9.

Families living along Arkansas 8 were asked to leave their homes and spend the night with friends and relatives, said Jim Grant, conservation education coordinator for the Arkansas Forestry Commission. No one was injured, he said.

“The fire just jumped right across the road,” Grant said.

Forestry Commission spokeswoman Tonja Kelly said the big fire in Ashley County and a smaller one nearby were deliberately set. She said the Ashley County Sheriff’s Department and state investigators would pursue the case.

“Our investigator has let us know he is confident it is an arson,” she said.

Fresh crews were preparing to attack the remaining portion of the fire that was not under control Monday morning.

“They’ve not yet got a line around the very head of the fire,” Kelly said.

Grant said conditions became less oppressive during darkness.

“During the night, the wind died down, the humidity came up a little bit and fire crews were able to put a line around most of it,” Grant said.

The mile-wide fire burned east of Hamburg, said Larry Nance, Deputy State Forester with the Arkansas Forestry Commission, said firefighters from four volunteer departments used 11 dozers and two air tankers to fight the blaze.

Besides the homes, Nance said the four other structures included trailers and a hunting club building.

Summer-like windy, dry weather provided perfect conditions Sunday for the outbreak, Nance said. A wind advisory was issued for Ashley, Carroll, Chicot and Washington counties, where gusts reached 35 to 40 mph.

“The conditions came together,” Nance said. “The high temperatures, high winds and low humidities, that’s the three big things that brought it more critical for all of Arkansas.”

The National Weather Service said Monday that winds would be lighter and that rain – up to an inch in some places – was forecast to fall starting Monday night.

“This is not going to end the drought by any means, but it will improve conditions,” weather service forecaster Newton Skiles said Monday. The best rain chances for Tuesday were in south and southeast Arkansas but even northern parts of the state were forecast to get a quarter to a half inch of rain, Skiles said.

Another system was forecast to move into the state later in the week, bringing a little more rain, he said.

State firefighters also found a 300-400 acre blaze on Sugarloaf Mountain near Fort Smith and another 200-300 acres fire at Spring Mountain in Yell County near Danville, Nance said. A 1,000-2,000 acre fire burning in Louisiana crossed into Arkansas at Ashley County and Nance said Louisiana crews followed the blaze into Arkansas.

Debbie Ugbade, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Forest Service, said a fire broke out in national forests at Ward Lake about a quarter mile from Mena in west Arkansas. Firefighters dropped water from planes and used dozers to control the blaze. Other fires burned in the St. Francis National Forest and in the Ozarks in the Boston Mountain Ranger District, she said.

The forest service also helped fight fires on state forest land south of Fort Smith and east of Mount Magazine.

A cold front moving from the Plains toward Arkansas was expected to bring increased winds, and the National Weather Service predicted more dry weather and winds on the way.

Drought-like conditions have persisted for months in Arkansas and the threat of fire and diminishing water sources remain in the forecast. All but seven east Arkansas counties were under a burn ban. Those were Clay, Crittenden, Greene, Lee, Mississippi, Phillips and Poinsett counties.

Low pressure in the forecast Tuesday should draw moisture into parts of Arkansas from the Gulf of Mexico, the weather service said, and bring the first good chance for rain, especially across the southeastern part of the state.

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