Stillwater News Press

July 20, 2013

Officials wary of wildfire potential as summer heats up

By Megan Sando
Stillwater NewsPress

STILLWATER, Okla. — Authorities are weighing the possibility of dangerous wildfires this summer much like those in Stillwater and surrounding areas last August.

“Our weather conditions have significantly improved this year compared to last, but all it takes is a prolonged period of dry, hot conditions and our wildfire activities will start to increase,” Payne County Emergency Management Service Director Jeff Kuhn said.

Last year, wildfires damaged more than 70 homes in the Stillwater and Glencoe area combined. Kuhn said conditions were so bad a beer bottle in a ditch, when the sun hit it, started a fire.

“As long as we continue to get rain and humidity we won’t see those types of fires,” he said.

Kuhn said one reason wildfires start is when people burn trash and debris during dangerous conditions. Approximately 60 to 70 percent of emergency calls happen when these types of fires get out of control.

Carelessness can be avoided when people use common sense and look at the forecast a few days before burning, Kuhn said.

Conditions are prime for a wildfire when humidity is less than 30 percent, vegetation is dormant or at least has little moisture content, and wind speed is less than 20 percent. For brush fires, Kuhn said it is important to get the forecast three to four days beforehand because it will continue to burn. For any burning activity, it should not be left alone because the quicker the fire department is notified, it is easier to extinguish, he said.

Another reason wildfires may start is roller bearing failure on hay balers.

For this reason, Kuhn recommends that farmers have fire extinguishers on their haying equipment.

Crown fires, one of the most dangerous and difficult fires to extinguish, burn at the tops of trees, like those in Arizona that killed 19 firefighters this month.

“Dangerous wildfire conditions happen when the fires spread at speeds that make it very difficult to reach the head of a fire. Crown fires are almost impossible to stop and result in spot fires that start in front of the fire, a quarter to one mile ahead. This is extremely dangerous situation because this is what causes firefighters to get trapped. I am not anticipating those conditions this year but it is impossible to predict,” Kuhn said.

On Jan. 11, the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry issued a release warning that fire danger is likely to increase statewide.

The release states that “Oklahoma was experiencing flooding rains just a over a month ago but current data shows that the picture is changing.”

Stillwater Fire Department Lt. Steve Sylvester said after rain, vegetative growth can occur, but the real danger is when it dries out.

“It’s a good indicator for wildfires,” he said.

The flux between flooding, tornados and extreme heat all increase the opportunity for fire danger because of leftover debris.

The typical response to a wildfire varies by the intensity of the fire. Sylvester said up to four brush trucks may be used for a substantial fire. A brush truck is a specialized truck with capabilities to drive and extinguish the fire at the same time. Unlike standard trucks, the brush truck gives firefighters access to a separate pump for caged areas on the front of the truck. That way, it is useful for open areas.

“Depending on the size, our normal response is two brush trucks. If it’s got size at all, four brush trucks, a battalion chief and a tanker are used,” Sylvester said.

The tanker, a back-up for the brush truck, is new and carries an extra 3,500 pounds of water.

At times, the fire department also relies on aid from towns such as Perkins or the surrounding areas.

In addition to brush trucks, all firemen must go through training to learn about extinguishing wildfires.

“Everyone here has had some sort of wildland training,” he said.

This year, the first burn ban has been issued for Cotton County under the conditions that the drought rated moderate or higher by the National Weather Service, no more than one-half inch of precipitation is forecast, fire occurrence is significantly greater than normal for the season or initial attack on a significant number of wildland fires has been unsuccessful due to extreme fire behavior and more than 20 percent of the wildfires in the county have been caused by escaped debris burns or controlled burns, according to the release.