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Left: Oklahoma Wildland Firefi ghter memorial at the Forest Heritage Center Museum at Beavers Bend State Park is dedicated to the memory of Jim Burnett, a fi refi gher who died on the fi re- line. Photo by Charles Sasser. Center: Wildfi re approaches an Oklahoma City home under construction in the wildland urban interface during a major fi re outbreak in August 2011. Photo cour- tesy of Major Mike Nettleton, Oklahoma City Fire Department Graphics. Right: Wildfi re moves quickly, like this one in the Ouachita National Forest. Photo courtesy of Oklahoma Forestry Services.


Each year when snows melt and dry winds from the south blow away the spring rains, more than 25,000 gladiators like Burnett and Byington receive the call to combat man’s ancient enemy—wildfi re. They form a brave, thin line across the United States to protect lives and property from nature run amok. Statisti- cally, fi refi ghting is the most hazardous occupation in America, a danger multiplied for wildland fi re- fi ghters.


A study conducted by the U.S. Forestry Service shows that 129 federal, state, city/county, and volun- teer fi refi ghters sacrifi ced their lives over a nine-year period in the battle against wildland fi res. Sixty-fi ve percent of them were west of the Mississippi River. Oklahoma ranked eighth in the nation with four fi re- fi ghter deaths, tied with Utah.


“So many people underestimate the danger of wildfire, how fast it can move,” says C.J. Norvell, spokeswoman for the U.S. Forestry Service headquar- tered in Talihina, Okla. Most wildfi res in the United States occurs in the southern and western regions of the country. The an- nual wildfi re season seems to start in southeastern states like Virginia, Georgia and Florida. It moves west with the March winds to feed on the winter- brown trees and dried grasses of Oklahoma, Texas and other states of the Southwest. It continues its sweep to wind up the year in Colorado, California, Montana and other western states. Oklahoma battles more than 3,000 wildfi res dur- ing a typical fi re season that lasts roughly from late winter through summer. The OFS, a division of the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry, is the principal agency for wildland protec- tion and for fi re prevention and suppression. It pro- vides primary response to fi re for 6.5 million acres of state forest and expanded attack jurisdiction for another 15.7 million acres of forest, cropland and farms.


As most Oklahoma forests are located in the eastern third of the state, OFS’s 92 fi refi ghters are deployed at permanent sites in three different regions of eastern Oklahoma—the Northeast (Tahlequah, Sallisaw, Jay), East Central (Wilburton, Talihina), and the Southeast (Broken Bow, Antlers, Atoka). Either or all these sites deploy fi refi ghters to other areas in Oklahoma when required.


The unpredictable heat wave and drought of 2011, the hottest, driest year recorded in Oklahoma, produced some of the most signifi cant wildfi res in state history. Michelle Finch-Walker, communica-


“So many people underesti- mate the danger of wildfi re, how fast it can move.”


- C. J. Norvell U.S. Forestry Service


tions specialist for the OFS and Choctaw Electric Cooperative member, notes that agency fi refi ghters responded to 1,740 fi res in eastern Oklahoma that year and another 170 in the rest of the state. Oklaho- ma’s 900-plus rural and volunteer fi re departments attacked and controlled many additional wildland fi res.


That year’s wildfi re season resulted in the loss of hundreds of thousands of dollars in homes, struc- tures and personal property, burned thousands of acres of valuable commercial timber, injured 15 peo- ple, and killed three.


“It felt like a storm from hell or something,” says Frank Edgar, whose brother Hollis, 81, perished in Pawnee County. “Embers were fl ying in the air and touching the ground, and everywhere they touched, fi re fl ames would follow.”


According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), Oklahoma at 26.4 deaths per 1 mil- lion population ranks second in the nation in the rate of death by fi re, surpassed only by Washington D.C. These statistics include civilian and fi refi ghter casualties.


Most frequently, rural fi re departments, largely manned by volunteers, are fi rst responders to wild- fi res. If the fi re proves too big and burns out of con- trol, other assets are summoned, including nearby municipal departments and the State Forestry Ser- vice. The OFS will normally assume incident com- mand (IC) since its smoke eaters are specifically trained for fi ghting forest fi res and the agency has equipment geared especially for it.


Fire Chief Mike McNeer of the Flat Rock Volun- teer Fire Department has been a volunteer fi reman since 2003. His “real” job is as a paramedic with Tulsa’s Emergency Medical Services Authority. His 16 volunteers work out of two stations in Wagoner County in the Lake Region Electric Cooperative ser- vice territory. His fi re district was fortunate during the big fi re season of 2011, rolling on only 20 blazes while 76 runs were in response to medical emergencies such as heart attacks or accidents. Like most volunteer departments, Flat Rock’s continuing challenge—one that affects both its reliability and effi ciency—is in attracting manpower. “It’s hard to recruit,” McNeer says. “The age of ‘volunteering’ seems to be over. The older people are getting too old to fi ght fi res. Most of the young don’t seem to want to volunteer.” Fighting a major fi re is much like mobilizing for war. Local, state and federal assets may all be involved. The IC is like General Eisenhower commanding the Normandy invasion. Tanker-bomber aircraft dump “slurry” retardant on the enemy; National Guard he- licopters attack hot spots with giant buckets of water; ground-pounding infantry and armor of bulldozers, tankers and pumpers attack, defend and counterat- tack; combat commanders coordinate the effort from the air; even smoke jumpers, the elite Special Forces of fi refi ghting, may be called upon to parachute into otherwise inaccessible regions. “Three vital factors contribute to a fi re’s ability to take up and go,” says Andy James, a 16-year vet- eran of the OFS and a “Forester” supervisor for the OFS’s southeastern district at Broken Bow. “They are weather, fuels, and topography. In Oklahoma, we have extremes in all three categories—hot, dry weather along with abundant fuels and diffi cult ter- rain in the mountainous areas.”


Although the U.S. Forestry Department in Okla- homa, primarily responsible for the Ouachita Na- tional Forest in southeastern Oklahoma and the Black Kettle Grasslands in western Oklahoma, fi elds only six fulltime federal fi refi ghters, it is a vital link in providing air tankers out of its mobile tanker base in Texas and in furnishing “hot shot” ground infan- try, additional helicopters, and smoke jumpers from other regions of the United States.


“For a big, out-of-control fire,” U.S. Forestry Spokeswoman Norvell says, “we can draw on federal and state fi refi ghters from all over the United States. We all help each other.”


Continued on Page 16 JULY 2012 15


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