Nearly half of Arkansas is in severe drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. The drought is most concentrated in the southern part of the state. Consequently, 51 of the 75 counties in Arkansas have instituted burn bans. Chris Buonanno, a science and operations officer with the National Weather Service in North Little Rock said the worst conditions are concentrated near the state's border with Louisiana.
“Drought conditions that have developed late this summer actually have characteristics of a 'flash drought,' we call it, where drought conditions develop very quickly and they're accompanied by very above normal temperatures. And we've seen that in the last six to twelve weeks or so,” said Buonanno.
The U.S. Drought Monitor releases a weekly report every Thursday. Adriane Barnes, a spokeswoman for the Arkansas Forestry Commission, which is tasked with containing the spread of forest fires, said this “flash drought” is leading to high fire danger, especially in areas of low humidity, dry vegetation and gusty winds. She said wildfires have been occurring more frequently than normal in recent weeks. On Thursday the Commission tallied 28 wildfires burning about 500 acres around the state, according to a news release.
“We have had fires, we will continue to have fires and hopefully, with everyone's help we'll continue to keep them contained very small and we hopefully avoid them altogether as folks understand that burning outdoors is not a good idea,” Barnes said.
The Forestry Commission has flagged 53 counties for “high wildfire danger.”
So far this year, 12,732 acres have burned in 996 reported wildfires, according to the Commission. Barnes said hunters taking advantage of muzzle-loading season and operators of heavy machinery in rural and forested areas should also be mindful of emitting sparks that can cause flames. Jon Barry, a forester with the University of Arkansas Extension Service in Hope and an assistant professor at the Southwest Research and Extension Center said small wildfires are typically not very harmful to ecology, however.
“As a volunteer fireman, most of the wildfires that I deal with really have no impact on forest health. Flame height is so low, it burns off the underbrush and leaf-litter but it doesn't do any damage to the tree,” Barry said.
But Barry said larger, more intense fires can be harmful. Droughts, he said, can have long-term impacts on trees, which can become more susceptible to insects and disease. Trees weaken the longer they are exposed to drought-like conditions. Excessively dry weather can shut down the photosynthetic process in trees, he said, which thrive on regular amounts of both water and sunlight. Several continuous droughts over the course of many years can have severely impact overall forest health.
Meanwhile, in agriculture, the dry weather is benefiting the harvest of certain crops. Jarrod Hardke is a rice agronomist with the University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture Cooperative Extension Service.
“At this point it's actually very helpful in terms of harvesting the rice crop. Getting in and out of the field without actually causing much field damage due to rutting that we can oftentimes get into when we have a wet fall,” Hardke said.
Hardke said about a third of Arkansas's rice crop is located south of Interstate 40, the area currently most affected by drought. He said about 90 percent of this year's crop has already been harvested, though with smaller yields than were seen last year. On average, the harvest has contributed to a yield of 160 bushels per acre of rice, compared to 168 bushels per acre tallied for last year.
Aside from rice, other row crops have barely been affected, if at all, by the drought. That's according to Jason Kelley, a wheat and feed grain agronomist with the UA extension service. Most harvests of corn and sorghum took place in August and early September. He did say dry conditions could even help with the scheduled planting of wheat in the coming weeks, as long as the planting is followed by a moderate rain. A hard rain may warrant a replanting of the wheat.
Update: This article was revised at 11:52 a.m. Friday to reflect the latest information provided by the Arkansas Forestry Commission on the number of burn bans, wildfires and acres burned.