Oklahoma Forestry Services battled 1,745 fires in 2011

As emergency responders look back on a busy year of fighting wildfires, they are focused on an elevated risk for wildfires Friday and Sunday.

While the primary risk Friday is in southwestern Oklahoma, stronger winds along with very warm and dry conditions will result in a more widespread elevated wildfire risk Sunday, according to the National Weather Service, Norman.

The threat follows a hectic year for emergency personnel who fight such blazes.

Oklahoma Forestry Services battled 1,745 fires in 2011, said Mark Goeller, assistant director.

Those blazed across 132,103 acres. In comparison, Oklahoma Forestry Services battled 2,664 fires that burned 83,881 acres in 1980, another year of extreme drought and heat.

“While we fought more fires in 1980, the acres burned in 2011 far exceeded that year,” Goeller said. “Another factor to consider is that currently we have more employees, better equipment, and more fire departments than Forestry Services had to work with in 1980.

“That gives you an indication of how bad 2011 was in regard to wildland fire.”

The number of fires and acres burned are only a couple of indicators of a busy year of fighting wildfires.

Oklahoma Forestry Services' fire protection area includes 15 counties in eastern Oklahoma.

However in 2011, they also responded to 161 fires outside their protection area. Goeller said that compares with 50 fires outside their area in 2007, the last busy fire year.

The ways they assisted varied. In some cases it meant going up in an Oklahoma Highway Patrol plane and using the broader view to provide firefighting information to the incident commander on the ground.

Goeller said this had been done some in recent years, but not to the extent it was during 2011.

“You can see the whole picture,” he said. “You are looking at the fire behavior, fuels, topography and potential control lines, whereas if you're in a vehicle you've only got a small glimpse of what the fire is doing and where it's going.”

Many fires in 2011

Fifteen people were reported injured in wildfires March 11, according to the state Health Department. There were 54 wildfires statewide reported to Oklahoma Forestry Services that day.

The American Red Cross of Central and Western Oklahoma, working in conjunction with Midwest City, Choctaw and Harrah officials, identified 39 affected residences, including 32 destroyed and one with major damage. One home was destroyed in Pottawatomie County, according to the American Red Cross.

On April 3, the state Emergency Operations Center was aware of more than 100 fires burning across the state.

Three days later, the center and Oklahoma Forestry Services coordinated the dispatch of Oklahoma National Guard helicopters equipped with buckets. The Oklahoma Highway Patrol was assisting with traffic control. Other agencies provided ground firefighting equipment.

From June to August, there were numerous wildfires, with 15 resulting in Fire Management Assistance Grants, according to the state Department of Emergency Management.

These were just some of the wildfires across the state in 2011.

Ongoing planning

Another way 2011 differed from most years was the weekly conference calls involving Oklahoma Forestry Services; National Weather Service offices in Norman, Tulsa and Amarillo, Texas; Oklahoma Army National Guard; Oklahoma Highway Patrol and state Department of Emergency Management. The conference calls started in September 2010 and continued through last month. The purpose was to discuss the next week's fire potential and coordinate firefighting resource availability.

“As things continue to dry out and fire activity starts to pick up, then we'll resume those calls,” Goeller said. “However, even without the weekly calls, we can still get aircraft and send firefighting resources anywhere in the state when they're available.”

Oklahoma Forestry Services has 42 units, each consisting of a brush pumper-type vehicle, a transport truck and a fire suppression dozer and two firefighters, Goeller said. The conference calls helped in part to preposition units to areas facing greater wildfire risks on certain days in relation to various fire weather factors.

And although aerial firefighting assistance is usually thought of as the Oklahoma Army National Guard's CH-47 Chinook helicopters and the UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters, Oklahoma Forestry Services can mobilize federal resources such as fixed-wing air tankers and firefighting helicopters.

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