The state Forestry Division is known for managing woodlands, helping control fires and supporting rural fire departments.

Not so well known is its work in cities and towns. In mid-May, the division hosted forestry professionals from across the Southeast for a training event designed to improve the skills of Urban Strike Force Teams.

Team members are certified by the International Society of Arboriculture. They respond in areas that have suffered tornadoes, high winds, flooding, ice storms and other types of natural disaster. They evaluate the damage done to trees and assess the risks posed by damaged trees. They also help local residents recover from storm damage by applying for federal assistance.

Of course, the damage from severe storms isn’t restricted to rural areas. Cities and towns experience tornadoes too.

The training exercise hosted by the state Forestry Division was at Trumann, where residents are recovering from devastating tornadoes last winter.

The strike force teams assess damage to trunks, branches and roots and recommend if any trees should be removed or trimmed for safety reasons.

More Arkansans are probably aware of the Division’s work to train and equip rural fire departments. Since the legislature created the Rural Fire Protection Program in 1979, the program has provided more than 700 firefighting vehicles for rural fire departments.

The Division also makes available oxygen masks, generators, hand tools, tools for digging trenches, bandages and jacks that can lift heavy equipment.

Interest free loans are available for rural fire departments in which more than 75 percent of the firefighters are volunteers.

The Division also works with the U.S. Forest Service to help local firefighters obtain excess federal equipment, and will also help make any needed repairs or refurbishing.

The Division has a program called Firewise that educates and trains homeowners and civic leaders about preparation against wildfires. Arkansas cities and towns have grown, so more neighborhoods and houses now border woodlands. This increases the risk from grass, brush and forest fires.

Fire professionals can help homeowners adapt their property by setting aside defensible areas between structures and forests. They can be effective within a range of 30 feet to 300 feet.

The Division works with private landowners to improve the health of their woodlands with proven management methods.

The Division regularly provides seedlings. Last month it held a “Free Tree Friday” at 36 separate events and gave away 17,800 trees. Last October the Division held tree-planting ceremonies at 12 schools where the playgrounds lacked shade. Forestry Division staff chose tree types that are best suited for the soil and regional climate conditions of the schools.

Also, the Division awards grants to cities and towns for improving forest health and preventing erosion in parks and community areas. Healthy urban forests improve air quality.

Recently the Division announced the availability of its Pocket Guide to Arkansas Forest Health. It’s free at Division offices around the state. The guide lists the types of insects and diseases that damage tree health, and has tips on how to recognize and prevent them.

Arkansas is the nation’s ninth leading timber producer, according to the Arkansas Economic Development Commission. About 55 percent of the state is forest.

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