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Experts say Oklahoma is in danger of wildfires, urge caution

texascountyfire_dec2021.jpg
Oklahoma Forestry Services
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Oklahoma Forestry Services wildland task forces and fire departments fight the Cobb Fire in Texas County in the Oklahoma panhandle in December 2021.

Dry and dead vegetation, low humidity and warm weather are all making what experts call a dangerous wildfire environment in Oklahoma this winter.

Gary McManus, the Oklahoma state climatologist, said increased rains over the summer caused the Oklahoma landscape to turn green. Now that the green has lost its color and moisture, making the state more like a tinderbox.

“With all this fuel load that we have due to the excessive moisture we had back in the summer, which allowed a lot of growth, we're just waiting for the right conditions to come along to trigger this fire weather again,” McManus said.

McManus said the season could shape up to host huge wildfires like that of the Starbuck Fire in Western Oklahoma in 2017, which burned more than 600,000 acres of land.

Right now, the Oklahoma Forestry Services is at a preparedness state of 2 out of 5, according to its latest fire situation report. Mark Goeller, the director of Oklahoma Forestry Services, said that means most of the fires that occur are contained with an initial response from career or volunteer fire departments across the state.

“We only send Oklahoma forestry services resources out of our protection area, which is in the eastern 15 most counties, out of that protection area as needed,” Goeller said.

The Oklahoma Forestry Services has 130 employees, and 100 have nearly all firefighting responsibility or firefighting is part of their job duties, Goeller said. That isn’t enough people to cover the entire state, but the agency does have compacts with the federal government and 13 southern states including Texas and Arkansas to help if a large wildfire breaks out.

The agency was originally established to protect the forest lands in eastern Oklahoma. But over time, through state statute, OFS has become the wildland fire agency for the entire state, he said. The state legislature could add more funding to staff the entire state, but it would be pricey.

“It could be done in stages, but again, it would be based on [what] the state's budget was and then also the support for that type of service to be placed across the state,” Goeller said.

John Weir, a fire ecology specialist for Oklahoma State University Extension, said the state is the driest in the winter months of December, January and February. He encourages people to be fire conscious of burning this season given the conditions.

“Don't burn trash, don't burn debris, don't burn piles,” Weir said. “And you know, even if you think you have a good day for it, you need to be checking the weather two or three days out, because a lot of that stuff can smolder for long periods of time.”

Other precautions you can take to avoid accidentally starting a wildfire include properly disposing of cigarette butts, not driving cars over grassy areas, and making sure that there are no chains or other metal hanging from your vehicle that could create a spark for a fire.

Seth Bodine was KOSU's agriculture and rural issues reporter from June 2020 to February 2022.
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