The scene has been a far too common one as wildfires continue to sear hundreds of acres across Cherokee County and the entire state.

Extremely dry, windy conditions required Gov. Brad Henry to impose a statewide burn ban Nov. 15. The ban has been strengthened since being put in place and even quelled New Year celebrations involving fireworks.

Since Nov. 1, Oklahoma wildfires have covered more than 285,000 acres and destroyed 200 buildings, said Michelle Finch, a spokeswoman for the Agriculture Department’s forestry division.

Fire Chief Mike Swim said Tahlequah firefighters have responded to 117 calls since Nov. 15.

“Fifty-eight of those were grass fires,” he said. “It’s going to continue as long as we have the wind and humidity.”

Swim said some of the fires were easily extinguished while others took time and water. The city fire department’s averaged about 1,000 gallons of water on each grass fire.

Ray Hammons, assistant fire chief, said local firefighters believe about 25 percent of the grass fires were intentionally set.

“These fires are not just a fire department issue,” said Cherokee County Chief Investigator Jason Chennault. “They’ve become a law enforcement issue.”

Cherokee County sheriff’s deputies have cited two people for violating the state burn ban. When needed, deputies have become firefighters and warned local residents of impending dangers.

“When we had the big fires around the county [Nov. 27] the deputies drove around looking for grass fires,” Sheriff Norman Fisher said. “When they’d find one, they’d stop and help put it out.”

Some deputies are also firefighters.

“Our office is concerned about the damage these fires have been doing,” Fisher said. “We intend to keep doing whatever we can to help the fire departments in these situations.”

Several Tahlequah police officers are also firefighters.

“We’ve been keeping an eye on things particularly when conditions make wildfires more likely,” Police Chief Steve Farmer said. “We answered several calls on New Year’s Day.”

Woodall Fire Chief Gary Dotson said minimal exceptions existed under the burn ban before it was toughened.

“We’d like for everyone to stop any outdoor burning until the ban has been lessened or completely lifted,” he said. “It’s just too easy for a fire to get out of hand.”

Dotson and Woodall VFD Capt. Steve Arnall are amazed that some people say they have no knowledge of the ban when approached by law enforcement or firefighters.

“It’s been in the papers and on radio and TV,” Dotson said. “You’d think everyone’s heard it by now.”

The wind speed and other conditions make some wildfires more unpredictable than others. Hammons said it’s not uncommon for a fire to jump from one side of the roadway to the other.

“Some of the time we rely on ponds close to a fire for additional water, but many of the ponds are dry,” Hammons said.

Swim said that doesn’t mean local residents have to worry about firefighters running out of water while battling a blaze.

“The city’s got plenty of water,” he said. “We’d even recommend watering lawns and shrubs.”

People can stay ahead of the game by having a water hose ready to go in the event a fire gets close.

Gideon Fire Chief Marty Kimble said it appears citizens are heeding warnings put out by fire departments.

“We had more right before the burn ban started,” he said. “We haven’t had a large number, but we’ve had some close, close calls.”

Kimble said it appears the wildfires in the Gideon coverage area were accidental. The department has provided mutual aid to area departments.

The number of fires is beginning to affect the bottom line of some departments.

“Our fuel bill is up to around $200 this month and will probably be about the same next month,” Kimble said. “It used to be anywhere from 0 to $40 or $50.”

The department has also lost some equipment during the fires. People living in the area have been supportive of the departments. Kimble said the fires played a role in the Gideon department’s membership dues collections going up.

“I don’t like the reason, but I’m glad to see dues up,” he said. “We get a lot of help from the sales tax too and we do a lot of the work on the equipment ourselves.”

Ranchers across Oklahoma are concerned about feeding their cattle after devastating wildfires burned thousands of acres of grazing land in recent days.

Marty Hern, of the Cherokee County Conservation District, said water may help lawns and shrubs in some instances, but not all.

“If you water your bermuda grass with the weather like it is, it’s going to dry out again and it won’t do you any good,” he said.

Hern recommends keeping grass cut short and not allowing any vines or other material to grow up the side of the house.

“Your green briars are volatile,” he said. “Eastern red cedars will just explode when they catch fire.”

There may be help available for some victims of the wildfires.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has authorized the use of additional federal funds from the nation’s Disaster Relief Fund to help Oklahoma fight fires.

The authorization makes FEMA funding available to pay 75 percent of the state’s eligible firefighting costs under an approved grant specifically designed for managing, mitigating and controlling any fire that threatens to become a major disaster.

Federal fire management assistance is provided through the President’s Disaster Relief Fund and made available by FEMA to assist in fighting fires that threaten to cause a major disaster. Eligible costs covered by the aid can include expenses for field camps; equipment use, repair and replacement; tools, materials and supplies; sheltering; and mobilization and demobilization activities.

FEMA prepares the nation for all hazards and manages federal response and recovery efforts following any national incident. FEMA also initiates mitigation activities, trains first responders, works with state and local emergency managers, and manages the National Flood Insurance Program.

Learn more

If you want to learn more about the burn ban or what you can do to help, contact your area fire department or nearest law enforcement agency.


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