St. Francis County under burn ban
St. Francis County Judge Gary Hughes today issued a burn ban making the county one of more than 50 across the state that have outlawed burning as the Fourth of July holiday looms next week.
Earlier this week, Hughes said he would hold off on issuing an order until after the holiday. This morning, however, he said that requests from officials with the Arkansas Forestry Commission and the danger associated with the current conditions made issuing the order necessary now.
“We were going to try to wait because we know that fireworks are an important part of the holiday for many people, but the conditions, as they are, and the fact that we have received a request from the Forestry Commission asking that we institute a ban, were the largest factors in the decision. We want everyone to enjoy the Fourth, but we also don’t want to see our firefighters put in harm and don’t want to see any loss of life or property because of fireworks,” said Hughes. “I guess everyone out in the county is just going to have to wait until we get a little rain to enjoy the fireworks that they have bought.”
The executive order outlaws any outdoor burning without a written permit from Hughes. The order includes a ban on the use of fireworks but does include a provision which would allow some displays with a written permit from Hughes. Hughes said he does not expect to issue any such permits.
“I probably won’t be granting any permits, but if there is an event that has been planned and the proper precautions have been taken and the fire department is on hand to take care of any emergencies, I might consider issuing a permit. But, I don’t know of any such planned events and really don’t anticipate giving any permits,” said Hughes.
According to an Associated Press story, 56 of 75 Arkansas counties – not including St. Francis County – were under burn bans as of Wednesday.
The state Forestry Commission sent a letter to the County Judges Association of Arkansas yesterday asking county judges who had not done so to impose burn bans and to include language prohibiting the discharge of all fireworks, except those expressly permitted by the county judge.
“With the incendiary nature – literally – of handheld fireworks, bottle rockets, all those things we like to do on the Fourth of July, the forests, grass and pastures are cinder boxes,” state Forester Joe Fox said. “We all like to celebrate July 4, but we think the safety of our citizens and firefighters takes top priority.”
The order allows the local fire departments and the sheriff’s department to provide enforcement.
The Forrest City City Council is holding a called meeting this evening to discuss a temporary repeal of an ordinance that allows fireworks to be discharged inside the city limits. Mayor Larry Bryant said enforcement of the law may be difficult for officers, but those caught shooting fireworks can expect to receive citations.
“If the council votes to ban fireworks for the Fourth, then people can expect zero tolerance,” said Bryant. “It can be difficult for officers to catch people doing it, but if we do, they can expect a ticket that will probably cost them more than they spent on the fireworks. This isn’t about stopping people from enjoying the holiday. It’s about safety. The conditions are just too dry right now for fireworks.”
Bryant also said the safety of area firefighters is a major concern.
“If we have a major grass fire caused because someone is shooting fireworks then it doesn’t just impact the Forrest City Fire Department because we have to call in manpower to assist us from the other area fire departments. We also have to call in the Forestry Commission, and all of those people are putting their lives on the line. We have a lot of trees in the area and a lot of dry grass and it is just too dangerous,” said Bryant.
The mayors from across the county spoke in support of the ban when contacted this morning.
Colt Mayor Randy Hefner, who also serves as a volunteer firefighter with the Colt Fire Department, echoed many of Bryant’s comments. “We are going to support Judge Hughes’ burn ban and we’ll enforce it. We’ve had several small brush and grass fires that were started from just something small like a person throwing their cigarette out, and if we have something big, we’re going to have to ask for help from the other departments. We’re a volunteer department, just like a lot of the departments in the county, and when we have to call for help it leaves someone else’s district uncovered, and that one grass fire won’t be the only call we’re going on. You have medical runs to go on, accidents and other fires, so the safest thing this holiday would be to take a trip and go watch a display but don’t do one at home,” said Hefner.
Hughes Mayor Larry Owens said he also understands the need for the ban. “It’s extremely dry right now and we have a lot of grass along ditches and on lots that is like kindle. It wouldn’t take much to start a fire and no one needs that so I’m in support of the ban. We’ll do what we can to enforce it,” said Owens.
A burn ban was issued in the city of Wheatley this morning, before the announcement of a countywide burn ban, and Mayor Larry Nash said they would also support the ban.
“The fire chief called this morning and asked me to put a burn ban in place for the city so we definitely support what the judge is doing. When I spoke with the chief he didn’t mention fireworks, but if the judge has it included in his order that should be enough. I hope people would already understand that it’s too dry for that, but we’ll enforce it if they don’t,” said Nash.
“If there’s a ban in place, we’re going to abide by it,” said Widener Mayor Arvin Billingsley. “It’s going to be difficult to enforce, but we’re going to abide by it.”
Madison Mayor Bobby Hardrick pointed to safety when he was notified about the ban. “This is really a safety issue. The temperatures have been so hot and everything is so dry that it just isn’t safe to have outdoor fires, even fireworks, so I support this effort. We’re going to do what we have to do,” he said.
Palestine Mayor Billy Shafer also voiced his support for the ban. “I haven’t spoken with the chief and don’t know how we’re going to enforce it, but if we have a county ban in place then we’ll do what we have to. I know that it’s very dry right now and we don’t need any fires, so we’ll support the judge on this,” he said.
According to St. Francis County District Court officials, the fine for violating a county burn ban is $115. Those discharging fireworks in Forrest City could receive a $90 fine for the misdemeanor crime.