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WILDFIRE


Continued from Page 15


Also as in war, combat troops on the ground require support. The Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management (OEM) with its staff of 22 employees headquartered in Oklahoma City works closely with FEMA and with fi rst re- sponders during periods of disaster ranging from storms, wildfi res and fl oods to man-made catastrophes such as the Murrah Building bombing in Oklahoma City in 1995.


“The duty of the Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management at a big


wildfi re,” OEM Deputy Director Michelann Ooten explains, “is to coordinate delivery of assets and resources like National Guard helicopters and to work with the various fi re departments in providing mutual aid. The IC tells us what he needs and we help supply it.”


The Red Cross also stands prepared to roll in support of all major disasters. “We can be on the road within 30 minutes, day or night,” Donette Widdoes of the Sapulpa Branch Red Cross says. “We set up cooling stations for fi refi ghters in the summer and warming stations in the winter. During a long ordeal, we estab- lish centers for hydration, snacks, and even meals. We have strategic agreements around the state for emergency evacuation shelters in churches, gyms, schools, community buildings and other places.” Nearly 500 local, state and federal fi refi ghters supported by OEM, the Red Cross and the National Guard rolled out for wildfi res that consumed more than 5,000 acres in an 18-square-mile area in the “wildland-urban interface” of Okla- homa City in late August 2011. Flames enveloped 30 homes, left 7,000 homes and businesses without power, and injured two people. It burned four days before it could be contained.


Other devastating wildfi res continued to blossom in scorching drought con- ditions for the rest of 2011—in the communities of Broken Bow, Noble, Cleveland, Edmond, Mounds and Terlton. In rural Cleveland, Verdigris Valley Electric Cooperative member Cierra Os- born, 20, was home alone on Sunday afternoon, August 7, when offi cials warned


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her to evacuate. As a wall of fl ames approached her house, she took off down the road on foot carrying a cat and a small bag. She and Jarrod Osborn, 21, had been married 10 days. They found only ashes when they returned to their home. “I had never seen something so horrifi c in my life,” she says. The most disastrous wildfi re in U.S. history burned 1,875 square miles of for- est near Peshtigo, Wis., in 1871, destroying 12 communities and killing as many as 1,500 people. Some 350 bodies were buried in a single mass grave because they could not be identifi ed.


The record for the largest number of fi refi ghter lives lost in a single fi re oc- curred in August 1910 when wildfi res swept across Montana and the Idaho pan- handle, burning 3 million acres and killing 78 fi refi ghters. Other deadly blazes include the Blackwater Creek fi re near Yellowstone Park in 1937 that consumed 17 fi ghters; the Mann Gulch fi re in Montana the same year that took the lives of 15 smoke jumpers; a 1966 blaze near Los Angeles that killed 13; a 1976 blowup near Parachute, Colo., that claimed six fi refi ghters; the Storm King Mountain fi re in Colorado in 1994 that snuffed out 14 fi refi ghters. OFS fi refi ghter Burnett died in a Wyoming blowup while leading an Okla-


homa crew against the Meeteetse fi re that raged over 33,000 acres in August 2000. OFS Spokeswoman Finch-Walker explains that Oklahoma is one of a compact of 13 states that cooperate to support each other in fi ghting major wildfi re. Oklaho- ma fi refi ghters may also be sent to any other state in the nation in an emergency. Burnett is the only OFS fi refi ghter to have been killed in action. An eight- foot,“hero-sized” bronze sculpture honoring Burnett stands as an Oklahoma Wildland Firefi ghter Memorial at the Forest Heritage Center Museum at Beavers Bend State Park near Broken Bow.


According to the nine-year study conducted by the U.S. Forestry Service, vol-


unteer fi refi ghters compose the most likely group to die fi ghting a wildland fi re. Of the 129 deaths recorded in the study, 41 were volunteer fi remen. Government fi refi ghters (federal, state, city and county) lost 60, while civilian contractors such as slurry bomber pilots suffered 28 fatalities. The vast majority of deaths were a result of heart attacks, poor health, and vehicle, equipment and aircraft accidents rather than fi re itself.


“Training and physical conditioning reduces fi refi ghter deaths from all the various threats,” OFS Forester James stresses. “By teaching safety and emphasiz- ing safety on the fi reline and in the use of equipment, we hope to make it safer for fi refi ghters.”


All OFS foresters and fi refi ghters must complete academic degrees in forest


management and fi re protection. Each year, experienced OFS veterans like James conduct Wildfi re Academies at Oklahoma State University, Rose State College, and other venues where forestry students and fi refi ghters throughout the state may become certifi ed to fi ght wildfi res.


Under the OFS Rural Fire Defense Program, instructors target rural volun-


teer fi re departments to provide training, technical advice, state fi nancial aid and fi refi ghting equipment. Chief MeNeer’s Flat Rock Fire Department has one fi re trainer, Assistant Chief Chuck Woodson, who is certifi ed by OFS to provide the department’s own in-house training. “When I fi rst began fi ghting fi res 16 years ago,” James says, “we seldom saw


houses threatened. People are now moving out of the cities and creating wildland- urban interface that makes fi re more dangerous than ever. We fi ght few wildfi res anymore without structures and people at risk.” In Oklahoma, lush green fi elds and trees of early spring make good fuel for


dangerous fi res later in the season. Oklahomans are urged to prepare for it. “You can’t wait until the season is here and fi re is rolling into your house


to take fi re prevention measures,” Battalion Chief Tim Adams of the Oklahoma City Fire Department warns.


“Be prepared,” OEM’s Ooten adds. “Have a plan for what you would do in any catastrophe. Have emergency supplies. Stay informed.” Wildfi re authorities offer a number of hints to help homeowners prevent


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16 OKLAHOMA LIVING


wildfi res from destroying their homes, property and families. Among these are common sense measures: avoid burning trash during high-fi re-risk periods; don’t toss cigarette butts out car windows; know emergency exits from your home and routes leading out of the area; keep grass and trees trimmed and shrubbery away from the residence; store fi rewood and other combustibles away from the house; keep fi refi ghting tools such as hoses, ladders, and buckets handy; use caution when working outdoors with equipment that might produce sparks. The law of averages, observes Gary McManus, associate state climatologist for the Oklahoma Climatological Survey, says it “is probably going to be hot, because that’s what happens in Oklahoma. And it’ll probably be dry.” That means wildfi re gladiators will continue to gird for war against some


3,000 wildfi res that spread smoke across the state each season, risking their lives to save other lives and property. Because, as James says, “that’s what we do.” OL


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