On Wednesday, June 27, County Judge Charles Willett met with Fulton County fire chiefs to discuss whether the purchase of fireworks by individuals should be banned, and whether Salem's annual fireworks show should be held at the city park.
"We voted unanimously that individual fireworks should not be shot off while it is so dry outside," Salem Fire Chief Nick Blanton told The News.
According to Blanton, fireworks stands could remain in operation and sell merchandise, but they were asked to put up signs explaining that fireworks were not to be used until the area had received substantial rain.
The fire chiefs agreed the July Fourth fireworks could be held, after area departments agreed to send extra firefighters and equipment to the city park to help put out any fires caused by the fireworks.
But, according to chamber members, Willett had a change of heart on Friday, and expressed concern about the safety of holding the fireworks show in such dry conditions.
The Salem Chamber of Commerce, which puts on the fireworks show, said that decision was not the Judge's call, since it had the permits to hold the event. After a long meeting on Monday, July 2, the chamber decided to proceed with the fireworks show as planned. But, in the late afternoon, Chamber President Nick Coleman announced the fireworks show had been cancelled.
"We felt like we had a plan in place that would allow the public to safely view the fireworks, and any fire problems could be dealt with," Coleman said. "But we wanted full support of everyone involved. We did not get it. They (county and city governments) were not supportive of our decision. It takes a lot of man hours to put on an event this big, so we are disappointed, and we know some sponsors and the public will be upset, as well."
According to Coleman, contributions for the fireworks show will either be returned to sponsors or held until next year -- when Coleman said the fireworks festival will return with a bang.
A ban against open burning was already in place in Fulton County when the initial meeting was held to discuss restrictions on fireworks.
"As dry as it has been, we hope people realize that they shouldn't even think about open burning," Blanton said. "It takes just one ember to set off a grass field, and put homes and people's lives at risk."
Blanton said a grass fire on Saturday June 16 is a good example of how dangerous conditions are. Several acres burned along Highway 62-412 near the Glencoe stop light when a bush hog struck a rock -- causing a spark which set off the fire. Two other wildfires were reported on Thursday, June 28 -- one in the Glencoe area and one east of Salem.
"We think it is in the best interest of the county to ban the use of individual fireworks right now," Judge Willett said. "People are welcome to buy fireworks and hold on to them until we get some rain and it is safe to use them."
According to Judge Willett, the Sheriff's Department and Salem Police Department will enforce the 'no individual fireworks' ban. If ticketed, violators can receive fines ranging from $250 to $2,500.
On Wednesday, June 27, Sharp County Judge Larry Brown expanded a burn ban to apply to all individual use of fire works. "Please remember that you can be held personally liable for damage to property caused by burning or use of fireworks," Brown said.
Izard County, which usually tries to avoid burn bans by encouraging people to call 911 before beginning outside burning, joined Fulton and Sharp Counties in issuing a burn ban on Tuesday, June 26.
The week of June 25, two fires were reported in Horseshoe Bend and two in the Oxford-Brockwell area.
"We don't see how we could enforce a ban on using fireworks," County Judge David Sherrell said. "But we are encouraging people to have water, fire extinguishers and their fire department's number handy if they decide to shoot fireworks. They are doing it at their own risk."
Sherrell said with drought conditions setting already in June, it is likely to be a long summer for area fire departments.
"We still have to go through July and August, which are usually dry months with high fire danger, but the grass is already dead about everywhere you look," said Sherrell.
Troy Franks of the Arkansas Forestry Commission office in Salem said his office has the power to issue citations if someone starts a fire that escapes to a neighboring property. He is currently investigating a case which could lead to a fine for a property owner.
According to Franks, the problem in recent days has not just been the hot weather.
"Humidity has been down around 17 percent," Franks said. "That means there is no moisture on vegetation, and the heat is sucking all the moisture out of trees and plants. So it doesn't take much to cause a fire."
Franks said striking a rock with a lawn mower or leaving a car running on grass can easily touch off a fire with conditions so dry.
"People need to be very careful about any kind of burning or any kind of activity that could lead to a fire," Franks said.