Few signs of the wildfire remain on the front of more than a thousand headstones at Fort Smith National Historic Cemetery.
In less than five minutes on February 9, two acres of the cemetery were covered in flames and smoke that charred the marble of many veterans’ graves.
Fort Smith field crews and firefighters kept the flames from spreading rapidly that day, said cemetery superintendent Marshall B. Murphy.
Volunteers have since carried out work that used special cleaning chemicals to remove the damage caused by the wildfire.
Forest fire damage erased from historic headstones
Marshall Murphy, superintendent of Fort Smith National Cemetery, talks about the work to clear damage from the February fires.
Fort Smith Time Record
Murphy said the cause of the fire on Wednesday, Feb. 9 remains unknown. The windy, dry weather helped fan the fast-moving fire that day. Although the cemetery lawn near the Arkansas River on the west end of downtown Fort Smith was mowed just inches high, the fire took hold and moved quickly.
More than 1,000 headstones were charred, but not beyond full restoration by hundreds of volunteers.
“We had the fire start from an unknown source,” Murphy said standing near some remaining charred grass stubble. “We don’t really know how it happened, but it got going pretty quickly, it started spreading with all the wind blowing.”
The damage was done in minutes.
“Our team managed to contain some of it and then the firefighters came here pretty quickly and put it all out. We ended up with about 1,000 rocks in that area that had been charred from the fire. It was pretty quick, “Murphy said.
It didn’t take long to find many volunteers to help clean the marble headstones with special chemicals, he said.
Murphy said dormant grass in the winter was fuel for the fire and everything was ‘completely dry’ on the day of the fire
The response to clear the headstones was quick, he said.
“The Fort Smith community is always so responsive to anything we need,” Murphy said. “Their response to veterans in general is phenomenal.”
He said 300 to 400 people helped clear the tombstones. More people will help re-turf where grass will grow back this spring.
People brought specific brushes and cleaners to do the job on the headstones. The volunteers took about two headstones each to work, he said.
“They took them out very, very quickly,” Murphy said.