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Fewer wildfires reported in western Arkansas

Western Arkansas has seen an increase in precipitation so far this year, and with it, fewer wildfires and a decreased need for controlled burns in the state.

According to a map from the Arkansas Forestry Commission released Sunday, all of western Arkansas and much of the middle portion of the state was listed under a moderate wildfire danger designation.

From January to August this year, Sebastian County reported five wildfires that burned 15 acres. The county reported 43 wildfires that burned 662 acres in all of 2011, and 23 wildfires that burned 155 acres last year, according to Foresty Commission data.

Lou Koch, forester for Sebastian, Crawford and Logan counties, said the difference has been moisture. Crawford County has seen one wildfire so far this year, compared to 23 for the entire year in 2012. Logan County has had six wildfires for 2013, compared to 50 for all of 2012.

The number of wildfires that have popped up in western Arkansas for 2013 has been about normal, if not below average, compared to the drought-ridden years of 2011 and 2012, Koch said.

According to the National Climatic Data Center, Fort Smith had a 46.56-inch total rainfall amount for 2011, and 33.94 total inches in 2012.

As of Monday, Fort Smith has accumulated 34.87 inches for 2013, and climate signals are showing strong chances for above-normal precipitation in September, October and November, said meteorologist Karen Hatfield with the National Weather Service in Tulsa.

The increase in precipitation could make it more difficult to conduct controlled burns, but it decreases the need to conduct them in the first place, Hatfield said.

“On the flip side, that’s probably a good thing because that means if we do remain wet, the chance of unintentional fires getting out of control is reduced as well,” Hatfield said.

The best time to conduct a controlled burn is after the first frost of the season, usually in late October or early November. The Forestry Commission conducts the burns to control the potential spread of wildfires and to hurry the arrival of new growth, Koch said.

Lance Kirkpatrick, Sebastian County extension agent, said farmers have not been conducting many controlled burns this year because of the lop-sided behavior of the summer. Although the year has seen a large total rain accumulation, there have been dry spells which prevent farmers from conducting controlled burns.

There has been no recorded rainfall for September so far this year, and it doesn’t look like there will be any rain until at least next week, Hatfield said.

Conditions need to be the correct balance of wet and dry to conduct a controlled burn, Kirkpatrick said.

“You’ve got to have the right amount of moisture. The right amount of moisture, combined with low wind, and things like that,” Kirkpatrick said. “I don’t think the moisture’s right. … It’s just a lot more rainfall than what we normally would see.”

Although wildfires can be beneficial to timber and wild life, they aren’t as a big of a factor in Arkansas compared to regions in the western U.S., where they play a major role, Koch said.

The fewer number of wildfires in Arkansas this year compared to previous years is not a cause for concern. If the region stays wet, farmers also should not be worried about conducting controlled burns, Koch said.

“The only reason I would be concerned is if we were to have a year like this, where it’s been real wet, and it shuts off — the rain totally shuts off and things start drying out …,” Koch said. “Then you may have a few problems.”

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