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story.lead_photo.caption Russell Cowart, a ranger for the Garland County Forestry Commission, stands in front of one of the bulldozers the commission uses to help fight and prevent wildfires. Cowart was recently awarded the Bronze Smokey Bear Award, the highest honor awarded by the U.S. Forest Service for outstanding work and program impact in wildfire prevention. - Photo by Sam Pierce

No matter where you go, the science behind fire is the same. It takes three things for fire to burn — fuel, heat and oxygen.

“I don’t care where you are at, or who you are, take away one of those things, and the fire will not burn,” Russell Cowart, a ranger for the Garland County Forestry Commission, said. “That is what we try to explain to people.”

Cowart was recently awarded the Bronze Smokey Bear Award, the highest honor awarded by the U.S. Forest Service for “outstanding work and program impact in wildfire prevention.”

“We came up with the idea that we needed a way to tell Arkansas people about Arkansas fires,” Cowart said.

“There was no set format for this, and we came up with the idea as a way to educate Arkansans about the fires that we have in Arkansas, using data from our dispatch center.”

Cowart said the program, the Arkansas Junior Wildland Firefighters Guide, is based on the forest service program called the Junior Ranger Program.

“But that is a national tool,” he said. “And it doesn’t specify the locale.”

The Bronze Smokey Bear Award was presented by the U.S. Forest Service Ouachita National Forest Supervisor Norman Wagoner, State Forester Joe Fox and Arkansas Agriculture Secretary Wes Ward.

“We are proud that Rusty’s initiative and hard work with the Arkansas Junior Wildland Firefighters Guide was recognized by the U.S. Forest Service for the significant impact it has in educating Arkansans about wildfire prevention and prescribed fire,” Fox said in a press release from the Arkansas Agriculture Department.

The Arkansas Junior Wildland Firefighter Program was created to help Arkansas Forestry Commission officials and other wildfire prevention professionals teach students about forests, wildfires and wildfire safety.

Cowart said there are different levels for the Smokey Bear Award: bronze, silver and gold. He said they are all three equal, but the levels are determined by the geographical scope of the project. The bronze is for a statewide project.

“I guess there were a lot of people in on it, except me,” Cowart said of his nomination. “I didn’t have a clue. They did a real good job of hiding it.

“… It is a big honor to be recognized nationally. The award is normally reserved for pretty important people. For somebody like me to receive it, it is pretty amazing.”

Cowart is originally from Fountain Lake and graduated in 1993 from Fountain Lake High School. He joined the Army after graduation and served for 18 years before retiring in 2009 as a staff sergeant. He decided to join the forestry commission because the idea of working outside and in the woods appealed to him.

“Little did I know all the other stuff that we do,” Cowart said. “I didn’t realize that I would get into teaching school programs, Smokey the Bear and all that stuff.

“I thought it would be fighting fires in bulldozers, but there is a lot more to it than that.”

Cowart said the job has turned into his mission to educate the public about the commission and what it does and why the officials do it.

“A lot of people don’t realize we are the ones who come and put out the forest fires,” Cowart said. “We do a lot of behind-the-scenes work, such as fire-prevention programs and school programs and training fire departments.

“Even when we are putting out fires, people don’t know we are there because we are out in the woods. Even when the news shows up, they don’t see us.”

Cowart has worked for the commission for nine years, and he said the last time Arkansas had a bad fire season was in 2012. He said about every six years, Arkansas sees an intense fire season, so “they are due for another.”

“So far in July, we have had 126 fires, burning 906 acres statewide,” Cowart said. “Any fire that has escaped its control is considered a wildfire.

“We don’t necessary bring a dozer to every one of them — we make that call when we get there.”

In California, there were 18 active wildfires at press time. According to reports, the largest of the fires, the Carr Fire in Redding, burned more than 112,880 acres in the past week.

“One thing that California has that Arkansas doesn’t is the low humidity,” Cowart said. “One of the biggest predictors of fire behavior is the humidity and is one reason why California is in a fire season right now, because of the low humidity.

“Humidity measures the moisture in the air and [with high levels of humidity] the fire doesn’t burn as fast or spread as fast — it is what dictates the fire behavior.”

Cowart said Arkansas is so thick with fuel, that wildfires here would make national news, too, but “luckily, our humidity kind of keeps us in check.”

“What a lot of people don’t realize about Arkansas is that we are really unique,” he said. “Our humidity level is high for most of the year — this isn’t even our fire season.

“Our fire season will be this fall — late summer, early spring and late winter. If you look outside, it is pretty green because we get rain and it is humid. It will really pick up and get busy later this summer.

“What we do is take away one of the legs, usually the fuel,” Cowart said. “We use our bulldozers to create a fire break so there is no more fuel to burn, so it goes out. We separate the fuel from the fire with the bulldozer.”

Cowart said the main way to prevent wildfires is to make sure fires are extinguished.

“If you do any kind of burning at your house, make sure the fire is completely extinguished,” he said. “Usually, people are sitting there with it — whether it is debris or brush pile — and once the flame goes out, they go in.

“But that ember can lie under the ground for days. If the conditions get just right, you can have a fire after you thought it was out.”

Staff writer Sam Pierce can be reached at (501) 244-4314 or spierce@arkansasonline.com.

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