Forest fire still burns near Buffalo River; popular trail remains closed

A wildfire burning in the Upper Buffalo Wilderness Area lit up the sky on Sunday night, Nov. 20, 2016, south of Boxley, Ark., near the home of professional wildlife and nature photographer Tim Ernst, who took this photo. (Copyright, Tim Ernst. Used with permission)
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BOXLEY, Ark. - Firefighters continue to fight a wildfire near the Buffalo River in Newton County. The fire is in steep and inaccessible terrain near Whitaker Point, also known as Hawksbill Crag, in the Upper Buffalo Wilderness Area.

Freezing temperatures across much of Arkansas caused leaves to drop by the millions over the past few days, particularly in the national forests. In combination with the lack of moisture and gusting winds, the leaves pose problems for firefighters.

“With the significant leaf fall, we are seeing some reigniting of wildfires that recently burned,” said Lance Elmore, fire staff officer for the Ozark-St. Francis and Ouachita National Forests in Arkansas and Oklahoma. “And on currently active fires, the leaves are resulting in an increase in intensity.”

Elmore says people should be careful with any activity that could cause a fire. He said firefighters are stretched thin in Arkansas due to the number of wildfires that occur each day, and the number of firefighters that are assisting with the wildfire siege in the East, namely North Carolina, Kentucky and Georgia.

The 75-acre fire near Whitaker Point was started by an unattended campfire more than a week ago. Fire suppression is not allowed in some wilderness areas but that is not the case in the Ozark-St. Francis National Forests where the Land Management Plan guides firefighters to suppress all fires in wilderness areas where it can be safely accomplished.

“Our first priority is public and firefighter safety,” said Incident Commander Mike Haisten. “The steep and rocky terrain, and dead snags from Red Oak Borer and ice storm damage make it difficult for us to directly attack the wildfire, but we have options that have allowed us to use natural barriers, and handline to contain it.”

Haisten said they are able to use some mechanized equipment like chainsaws and leaf blowers to gain the upper hand, but all actions are light on the land to reduce any lasting impacts.

Firefighters put in a handline along an old trail on Monday and conducted a burnout to essentially button up one area of the fire. If the line holds, Haisten cautiously estimated the fire could be called contained within a few days.

Unlike some wilderness areas, the Upper Buffalo Wilderness has private inholdings within the wilderness boundary, and one area near the fire is dotted with structures, including homes. Firefighters installed sprinkler systems around these structures, and worked to improve some areas to increase survivability in the event the Whitaker Point fire travels that far.

Firefighters are monitoring the fire through the night near the private property and along the Hawksbill Crag Trail, which is temporarily closed for public safety. Many people continue to try to use the trail, either purposely or because they’re unaware of the closure. The Forest Service asks people to honor the trail closure until it is lifted.

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