Fire danger in county still extreme

Tuesday, April 22, 2003
Eureka Springs Fire Chief David Stoppel carried flaming debris to make a fire break with the help of firefighter Billy Summers, during a successful effort to save Clarence Fife's home on Highway 23 South on Wednesday afternoon. CCN / Ken O'Toole

While a light but heavily wind-blown rain stopped the spread of fires plaguing southern Carroll County on Wednesday afternoon, it wasn't enough to extinguish smoldering stumps and branches which could rekindle the danger without a significant amount of more rain, according to Eureka Springs Fire Chief David Stoppel.

Uncontrolled fires, which apparently started on April 11, created heavy smoke from Bluebird Hill to western Eureka Springs, irritating lungs and wearying firefighters.

Strong winds this week combined with dry conditions and an abundance of dead grass and leaves to create the dangerous conditions, in spite of April's reputation for rain. Late Wednesday afternoon, Linwood Davis, public information officer for the Arkansas Forestry Commission, announced that District 6, which includes Carroll County, has been rated for extreme fire danger.

According to the Arkansas Forestry Commission an estimated 700 acres had burned in Carroll County. State-wide, 1,428 acres burned on Wednesday, and as of 4 p.m. Wednesday, there were 20 fires involving 298 acres still burning..

At midday Wednesday, an emergency radio broadcast indicated that a fire had, for the first time, jumped Highway 23 in the vicinity of Quigley Castle, south of Eureka Springs, and visibility was reported to be zero.

The reported jump followed a rekindling of a fire behind Lone Star Church, which Eureka Springs firefighters responded to at about 9 a.m. Wednesday.

The flames got so close to Clarence Fife's home on Highway 23 South, about a half-mile south of Quigley Castle, that the Eureka Springs Fire Department had to make fire breaks and douse the flames that began to surround his home early Wednesday.

By early afternoon, firefighters had his house surrounded and safe to fight off the blaze as it climbed close to the east side of the highway.

Fife said he was worried for a time, as the fire swept toward his house, "But I sure was relieved when those boys got there," he said as he pointed 25 yards into the slope where a firefighter was cutting a break.

Until crossing Highway 23, most of the fires were in close proximity to each other, between Rockhouse Road (CR 302) and Highway 23.

Kevin Hickie, acting district forester for District 6 of the Arkansas Forestry Commission, reported that he flew over Carroll County on Tuesday and observed that the burning areas were surrounded by firebreaks.

The view from the air was impressive, he said, noting that flames were concentrated in the Keels Creek valley, extended extremely high and moving uphill very fast. The casual observer might not see it, he said, "but it was all surrounded by a previously burned area east of Highway 23."

He said there was no truth to reports that the fires resulted from controlled burns started by the forestry department, nor that the commission had decided to let a fire burn. "Weather conditions of the last two weeks have been much too extreme to permit us to do any controlled burning."

But Hickie has no doubt that the fires were deliberately set. "My guess is that more than one person is involved. It could have been someone going willy-nilly through, setting fires, but I would guess that several farmers decided it was time to burn off the woods.

"What everyone needs to understand is that that is illegal," he continued. "It's arson. Failure to report a fire is also illegal."

Western county residents became aware of smoke last Friday afternoon, April 11, as southerly winds carried it to U.S. Highway 62 in the area of Bluebird Hill. That smoke may have originated in Madison County, but neither the forestry commission nor Eureka Springs Fire Department could confirm the source.

Eureka Springs Fire Department dispatch reports show that a burning stump had sparked an out-of-control fire on Dawson Road in Eureka Springs. Property owner Rene Chouinard reported that he was burning leaves, and that the winds picked up in the wooded valley, and the fire began to get away from him. Firemen extinguished the blaze, but later in the evening the blaze reignited, and firemen came back to finally extinguish it.

That fire, however, did probably not create enough smoke to obscure Bluebird Hill, Chouinard said.

Shortly after 10 p.m. an apparently unrelated fire was reported between County Road 266 and CR 2252 off of Onyx Cave Road. That fire reportedly involved between one and two acres, and the forestry commission was notified.

To deal with the threats, the state forestry commission called in contract airplanes from Western Pilot Service to drop water on fires ranging from near Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge to Rockhouse Road. Airport Manager Bob Pittman reported that a foam additive was used in the 500-gallon tanks. Two planes made seven runs each on Monday, and one plane made a single drop on Tuesday.

Berryville Fire Department assisted by filling tankers at the fire hydrant by McDonald's, and transporting it to the airport.

That effort, coupled with reduced winds, apparently lessened the fire danger as no other calls were received until late Tuesday morning when an out-of-control brush fire was reported at 4160 CR 302 (Rockhouse Road).

In the meantime, according to Lisa Taylor, administrative assistant to County Judge Ed Robertson, calls were coming in from citizens asking for a burn ban to be instituted. After checking with county fire departments, Taylor reached Robertson, who was out of town, and was authorized to notify the media of a county-wide burn ban.

Inspiration Point Fire Department was dispatched shortly after noon on Tuesday to a grass fire behind Lone Star Church on Highway 23 South. A fire break was created between the church and the woods, just a few yards from a propane tank, and the situation was brought under control by late in the evening. However, the following morning at 9 a.m. the fire apparently rekindled, as southerly winds again picked up speed again.

At 3:27 p.m. Tuesday Eureka Springs firefighters responded to a fire off of CR 3178, south of Lake Lucerne. That fire apparently had spread from further south on Monday, causing concern among area residents. On Tuesday, winds swept the flames up from an nearby valley and were cresting the top of a ridge, with sparks and burning leaves dropping down to the slope behind at least four houses.

Local residents pitched in with rakes and hoes to help create firebreaks across the steep terrain, and a leaf-blower was used to create a debris-free zone between the fire and the homes.

Eureka Springs firefighters left the scene after it was contained, at about 6:10 p.m., but the forestry commission remained on the scene.

At the same time, Eureka Springs firefighters were on the scene of a fire off Rockhouse Road, as well as fires near Turpentine Creek and Lone Star Baptist Church. Meanwhile, at 5:30, firefighters went to 590 CR 305 just south of Eureka Springs. Workers from the forestry commission, Inspiration Point, and Eureka Springs responded, and the situation was controlled by 7:33 p.m.

Eureka Springs Fire Chief David Stoppel said Wednesday morning that records of the week's fire calls are spotty due to the sheer volume. As he spoke, yet another call came in and, yawning, he left the station to suit up.

The constant runs have resulted in some mechanical problems. A tanker truck developed a diesel fuel line problem which was being repaired Tuesday evening. A recently purchased used fire truck was also in service. The vehicle, purchased from Sullivan, Mo., still carried that city's paint job.

While at a fire at Turpentine Creek, a clutch went out on a brush truck and had to be towed in.

Dozers to create firebreaks were brought in from forestry commission stations in Carroll and Benton counties.

Two other fires in the county took place at a lumber mill at Osage, and along a Carroll Electric Cooperative right-of-way near Wildflowers Chapel on U.S. Highway 62 near Eureka Springs. (See related story.)

Staff members Mary Jean Sell, Ken O'Toole and Anna Matthews contributed

to this story.

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