The fire most likely started with a lightning strike. Amid the low humidity, drought conditions and strong winds, it spread quickly. As firefighting efforts escalated, winds began to shift erratically, pushing the fire in unpredictable directions. Suddenly, 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, an elite firefighting crew from Prescott, Arizona, were lost to the flames. It is the deadliest U.S. wildfire in decades.
While the sympathy and prayers of Arkansans go out to the grieving families and communities in Arizona, our thoughts naturally also turn to our wildland firefighters here at home. So far in 2013, conditions have been kinder to Arkansas than they were last year. Through the end of June, we had seen about 400 wildfires in our State. Compare that to 2012, when drought conditions and extreme fire danger contributed to more than 1,000 fires over that same six-month period.
However, weather conditions can change quickly. Just two weeks without rain will put parts of Arkansas back in the position of high fire danger. Although the beginning of July has brought a welcome break from the usual summer heat, we realize that hot, dry conditions are set to return.
The Arkansas Forestry Commission faces uncertainty as we begin our new fiscal year. On the positive side, increased funding will allow the hiring of new personnel over the next 24 months. The Commission has been short-staffed since the resolution of budgeting problems two years ago. During the next two years, Forestry will be building back toward full manpower.
But there is also trepidation, because the Forestry Commission still does not yet know the full consequences of the federal sequestration. Congress's self-imposed budget cuts are still being implemented throughout federal agencies and having impacts on states as well. The Arkansas Forestry Commission has recently received its usual federal grants for the new fiscal year. However, officials have also been cautioned by their federal counterparts. As sequestration continues, Arkansas may be asked to return some of that grant money.
None of this, however, lessens the resolve of our men and women who serve Arkansas on a wildfire's front lines. While the Arkansas Forestry Commission coordinates responses and provides most of the equipment being used, much of the firefighting manpower comes from volunteer fire departments across the State. They all work tirelessly to protect our forests and our communities when fires ignite.
Keep our firefighters in mind as you take your vacations and camping trips this summer. Our fire danger is expected to increase, and it doesn't take much in those conditions to spark a dangerous blaze. The Arkansas Forestry Commission has lost four firefighters in the line of duty fighting fires during its history, the last in 2010. The tragedy in Arizona reminds us that theirs is perilous work, but it is work that these men and women love, despite the dangers and harsh conditions. And it is work we should thank them for whenever we have the chance.