The likelihood of an active wildfire season in 2018 is 'above normal' for Oklahoma and western Arkansas beginning in February.
Arkansas State Forester Joe Fox said, "Plenty of fuel on the forest floor and an uncertain drought outlook" add to the scenario of more, and bigger wildfires this year.
According to the National Interagency Coordination Center's United States Drought Monitor, the recent trend toward drought intensification and expansion in the South resumed despite recent rain. The monitor lists the Fort Smith area in D2, or “severe drought.” Northwest Arkansas is listed as D1, or “moderate drought” while a pocket in extreme north central Arkansas is listed as D3, or “extreme drought.”
The 2018 wildfire outlook, provided by the National Interagency Coordination Center predicts “above normal” wildfire activity from February through April in much of western Arkansas and all of Oklahoma, as well as most of Texas and parts of Missouri. The outlook is based on predicted drought conditions and forecasts for dry air over the region.
"2017 has been an active wildfire year, which points to the fact that we have a lot of woody debris on our forest floor," Fox said in an Arkansas Agriculture Department news release. "With plenty of fuel, an uncertain drought outlook, and wildfires trending larger in size, Arkansans can expect the possibility of an active wildfire season beginning soon.”
Fox went on to say that wildfire danger takes place when conditions of dry fuel, low humidity and moderate wind mix. Forestry crews remain highly trained and well equipped, he added, but residents should "always be mindful of safe burning and should use added caution in the coming year."
The primary causes of Arkansas wildfires continue to be arson and unintentional wildfires caused by routine outdoor burning, including the burning of trash, grass and leaves.
According to the Arkansas Forestry Commission, there were 1,566 wildfires in 2017 that burned 27,549 acres in the state. It was the highest wildfire frequency year since 2012 when 2,148 wildfires burned 34,434 acres.
Other causes of Arkansas wildfires include lightning strikes, children playing with matches, cigarettes, equipment and campfires, the Forestry Commission states.
Overall, wildfires were larger in 2017 with an average size of 17.6 acres compared to a 10-year average of 15.5 acres. The highest wildfire frequency month was November when 316 wildfires burned 5,858 acres. Fort Smith, for example, saw no rain in the month of September.
Agriculture Department's Forestry Commission has archived annual wildfire statistics by frequency, cause and county since 1935. Counties with the highest 2017 wildfire frequency were: Izard (1,987 acres burned by 70 fires), Hot Spring (563 acres burned by 58 fires), Saline (526 acres burned by 56 fires), Searcy (3,181 burned by 51 fires), Miller (195 acres burned by 46 fires), Grant (301 acres burned by 44 fires), Sharp (1,099 acres by 44 fires), Fulton (937 fires by 43 fires), Garland (210 acres by 42 fires), White (833 acres by 41 fires), and Conway (963 acres by 40 fires).
With 33 fires burning 872 acres, Crawford County saw the most wildland fire activity in 2017 for west central Arkansas. It was more than twice as many acres burned by wildfire the year before and the most in four years.
Logan County was next highest for the Fort Smith area in 2017 with 15 fires burning 354 acres last year, up from 240 acres burned by 34 fires in 2016. Sebastian County had 26 fires burn 316 acres last year, up from 21 fires burning 222 acres in 2016. Franklin County had 19 fires burn 244 acres last year, down from 1,458 acres burned by 24 fires in 2016.
Scott County had only 112 acres burn by wildfire last year, down from 138 acres in 2016, 165 acres in 2014 and 37 acres in 2013.
Access to the commission's archives can be found at www.aad.arkansas.gov/wildfire-statistics.