BENTON COUNTY, Ark. (KNWA/FOX24) — As of Thursday, Benton County has joined the growing list of counties under burn bans. That means all of Northwest Arkansas and the River Valley are now under a ban.

A 24 hour burn ban was issued for the county Wednesday night, and the court ordered ban signed by County Judge Barry Moehring came down Thursday morning. As of Thursday, 55 counties in Arkansas had issued burn bans, according to the Arkansas Forestry Commission website.

The current environment is ripe for fires. It’s been weeks since we’ve seen significant rainfall in Benton County, leading to brown grass, dusty cars and dried leaves falling from trees.

I’m in close communication with our local forester for the Arkansas State Forestry Department. We’re continually communicating about local fire conditions, local fuel conditions,” said Benton County Fire Marshal Gary Yarno. “As the situation continued to worsen, we both agreed that this was the time.”

Yarno said in his three and a half years as the fire marshal, he hasn’t seen a court ordered burn ban be issued.

“Now we’re getting into times of lower humidity, fuel moistures meaning the vegetation in this area is starting to become drier, especially the dead fuels that are laying on the ground,” he said.

With a lot of rural areas in Benton County, Yarno said this is a concern as fire chances start to increase.

“Unfortunately here in Benton County we do rely on a lot of volunteer fire departments in the rural area,” he said. “They have limited resources and when those resources get taxed, we could get ourselves in some trouble here.”

“We haven’t had much rain and the rain we have had is long ago dried up,” said Beaver Lake Fire Chief John Whisenant.

The Beaver Lake Fire Department is a hybrid of volunteer and paid firefighters, but it is a smaller department that covers a wide range of difficult terrain. Its jurisdiction is known as a wildland urban interface area.

“We build our homes on the sides of hills, with ravines that have undergrowth in them, and deadfall trees and shrubbery and that creates quite a fire hazard for our community,” he said.

BLFD has a special brush fire truck that carries all the tools they need to fight brush fires and keep them from spreading. Chief Whisenant said not all departments have this equipment.

“That is a specialized apparatus that carries water, foam and backpack blowers. It creates a drip torch as well, that we can back burn and try to stop a fire that way, it has leaf rakes and our people train on that,” he said.

So far this year, he said they have already responded to more than 30 brush fires, and have fought more than 400 acres of burned land. He said that is much higher than normal, and that most of this year has been dry.

“Don’t do any open burning and report any smoke in the area to your local fire department by calling 911,” he said.

During a burn ban, you are not allowed to do any open burning and fireworks are not allowed. You are allowed to do contained fires in fire pits made out of non-combustible material. You also don’t want to throw any lit cigarette butts on the ground as they can be an easy catalyst to start fires.

Yarno said violations of the ban have real consequences. 

“The penalties for that would be a fine of $25 to $1,000 and-or up to 30 days in Benton County Jail. And that’s for each incident,” he said. “Benton County please be careful with fire this time of year.”