A resident in the bone-dry rural area of Northwest Pulaski County called me about continuation of roadside mowing by the Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department, or perhaps a contract crew, along Highway 300. His opinion, prompted by the fire that broke out yesterday in Yell County: It's too dry to bush hog.
The resident uses a bush hog on his own land. Hit a rock or a piece of roadside scrap with the equipment and the metal mowing blade can cause a spark. A spark can cause a fire. He's complained to the Highway Department, but said he'd received assurances that the department had never had a problem, in part because mowers carry fire extinguishers. Mowing dry grass is, of course, a lot easier and faster than mowing west grass and the imperative of meeting mowing schedules is always there.
I asked Randy Ort of the Highway Department about the complaint, mowing practices and some potential differences that arose on whether a mowing crew did or did not start the fire that caused evacuations in Yell County yesterday. His response:
Mowing is continuing statewide, except in west-central Arkansas where it has been temporarily suspended. Mowers are required to carry small fire extinguishers, mainly to be able to address equipment fires.
The Department mows, or requires contractors to mow, 3 times per year. The first cycle is to be completed prior to the end of May, the second cycle is to occur during the month of July, and the third cycle is to occur between Oct. 1 and Thanksgiving. I am not aware of any time when we have suspended mowing operations statewide due to drought conditions. Individual District Engineers have the authority to suspend mowing operations in their area of jurisdiction and that does occur from time to time.
I hope we are not in conflict with the Sheriff over the origin of the Yell County fire. We had contract mowers in the area yesterday. It was one of those mowers who first detected the fire approximately 400 yards behind him. He circled back to the fire but could not get cell service to call for help. He attempted to put out the fire with his fire extinguisher but obviously had no success. A passing motorist stopped and called the fire in to authorities and, I am told, indicated the fire was started by the mowers (a reasonable assumption under the circumstances). With no eyewitness of the fire starting, it could have been caused by the mowing, it could have been caused by another vehicle, it could have been caused by a cigarette butt — we don’t know. We certainly do not deny the possibility that the mowing operation could have started that fire.