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Slow burn

Budget cuts and climate change spell trouble for rural Oklahoma

Photos by Nick Oxford

At times, it seemed 2018 would never end. Earth-shattering news stories seemed to come once a week as the United States was rocked by everything from natural disasters to domestic terrorism. Somewhere in the midst of all this, thousands of acres in western Oklahoma went up in flames.

In April, two separate fires—the Rhea Fire in Dewey County and 34 Complex Fire in Woodward—together burned roughly 348,000 acres in western Oklahoma over the course of two weeks. Ultimately, Gov. Fallin issued a state of emergency for 52 of Oklahoma’s 77 counties.

Shane Sander is chief of the Seiling Fire Department in Dewey County. He was there on April 12, when the Oklahoma Forestry Service warned his department that the day was projected to pose an extreme wildfire risk. The previous year brought a strong growing season, followed by drier conditions that left much of the area covered in withered brush and yellowed grass—fuel for the fire. On that day, humidity was expected to fall into the single digits as the area was battered by stronger-than-normal winds.

“It was the perfect storm,” Sander remembered nine months later.

Even with warning, it’s hard to get fires under control in these conditions. On the first day of extreme fire danger, most of Dewey County burned in what came to be called the Rhea fire. Less than a week later there was another day of extreme fire risk, but only so much could be done. “[The Forestry Department] told us, ‘It’s gonna be bad guys. Get ready,’” Sander said. “And we did, but getting ready means not getting your guys in trouble at that point. Stay out of the way of it, and don’t get overrun.”

Fire conditions were so probable that Sander and his crews had to abandon the idea of stopping the fire’s progress once it had started. They basically ended up managing the flanks of the fire. Usually firefighters will dig a shallow trench, called a fireline, in the path of the fire to halt its progress. But the dry conditions, massive amount of fuel, and unusually high wind speed ensured the Rhea fire moved so quickly that Sander’s crew couldn’t dig one fast enough, even with assistance from eastern Oklahoma fire crews who had driven over to help.

Sander made special note of the Rogers and Mayes County Fire Departments, with whom he worked personally during the crisis. “Those guys are heroes in my book,” he said. “Because they drove a long way to get here, and they fought like warriors once they got here.”

Preparing for the worst

Standing in a clearing in the pine forest by Lake Blackwell in Stillwater, Oklahoma Forestry Service fire management chief Andy James introduced the various firefighting tools to the assembled students gathered for a training session: the council rake, rogue hoe, reinforced shovel, Comby, Polaski, and collapsible rake—all designed to scrape grass, brush, roots, and other flammable materials from the fire line. James, along with Wilburton area forester Craig Marquardt, explained that a wildfires aren’t put out by smothering them with water or dirt, like you would extinguish a campfire. Instead, firefighters in rural areas typically control these blazes by depriving them of fuel.

The students broke up into four groups of seven or so. Preassigned team leaders distributed the tools, and each group marched into the woods single file, 10 feet between each member. James and Marquardt led two teams apiece a short distance along a trail, out of the warmth of the morning sun and into the forest. The students were shown the planned route of their fire line, a roughly 25 yard semicircle of blue plastic ribbons extending from the trail.

The groups were instructed to begin their fireline from a place that won’t burn, usually a paved road. They began digging their line from where each end of the semicircle meets the forest path. Marching at ten-foot intervals, each crew member took one pass with their tool, clearing away more fuel from the fire line until a shallow trench of bare earth is made along the entire route. It took about 20 minutes to complete their planned fireline. This is, in miniature, the way that wildfires are contained.

The students were fast workers, but even firefighters with years of experience have had trouble keeping up with what the last few years have brought. Sander has been with the Seiling Fire Department for 24 years, 16 of them as their chief. During his quarter-century as a fireman he says he has never seen anything like the Rhea fire. “Our little county here, that was the largest in history,” he said. “We are seeing fires growing in intensity and size as the years go by, but last year was an anomaly for sure.”

James says that the last few years have brought some of the most devastating fire activity he has seen in his 23 years as a fireman. “Dating back to 2016, just in northwest Oklahoma we’ve burned well over a million acres,” he said.

We’re doing a little better so far this year. The area has gotten sufficient precipitation over the last few weeks, enough to keep moisture levels up. Still, James notes that Oklahoma’s weather is just as unpredictable as people say it is.

“We get a couple weather systems that move through and this time of year it doesn’t take long for things to dry out and we’re off to the races,” James said. “So I just don’t want people to let their guard down and think because it’s a little wet and the ground’s a little mushy that things won’t burn. Because they will.”

When asked if he was worried about another fire season like last year, Sander erupted in laughter. “Absolutely! No doubt.”

A disturbing pattern

The last few years’ fire activity is part of a worrying trend toward more extreme weather seen across the world. The Fourth National Climate Assessment, released last year, shows that average temperatures in our area are expected to increase by 3.6 to 5.1 degrees by the middle of the century, and 4.4 to 8.4 degrees by the end. Our region is also expected to see at least 20 more days over 100 degrees per year by the end of the century, with higher-scenario projections placing it closer to 60 or 70 if no reductions in greenhouse gas emissions are made.

As a result, Oklahoma is dry with infrequent precipitation—but when it rains, it pours. This leads to a pattern of drought, followed by flooding, a pattern associated with greater soil aridity and an increased risk of wildfires as well as a longer fire season.

The Rhea and 34 Complex were both rural fires, and most of the area destroyed was either farmland or grazing pasture. More than a thousand head of cattle were killed. In some instances the same land has burned multiple years in a row, which is even more devastating for farmers and ranchers. It is bad news for any state when its ecosystem becomes increasingly hostile to life, especially for an agrarian state like Oklahoma.

When asked if he had the resources or personnel to handle another fire like last year, Sander struggled to answer. “To tell you the truth … if I’d have had every fire department in the state sitting here at my disposal, I don’t think that we could have adequately handled that fire with the way that it was moving and the intensity,” he said. “I don’t know if a person could ever have the resources or the manpower to handle anything like we experienced last year.”

Additionally, the Oklahoma Forestry Service—originally founded to look after eastern Oklahoma’s forests but now also responsible for coordinating the state’s wildfire response—is badly underfunded after a decade of budget cuts. The Service is forced to make due without needed personnel and equipment as its vehicle fleet slides into disrepair.

“Our fleet of vehicles is really starting to show a lot of age, and due to consistent budget cuts the last 10 years, we’ve lost our funding to update our fleet and also maintain our fleet,” James said. “That’s really crucial to be able to respond with well-maintained operational equipment when we get the call.”

For now, the Forestry Service gets help through the Southern Group of State Foresters, an organization dedicated to conservation and protection efforts in the southern United States. Through SGSF, the Service have access to experienced personnel and necessary equipment. Even so, it comes at a price. “It’s not cheap to fight fire, and you bring in resources from out of state,” James said. “You bring in aircraft from out of state. You bring in overhead and personnel with expertise from out of state. It’s pretty easy to spend millions of dollars.”

The last two years have brought unprecedented fire damage to the state of Oklahoma and beyond. California is still reeling from last year’s historically deadly and destructive wildfire season, which killed more than 100 people and cost upwards of $3.5 billion in damage, as President Trump—who has claimed that climate change is a Chinese “hoax” and blames California’s forestry service for the disaster—threatens to withhold FEMA assistance for victims.

Despite resistance from those in power, the scientific consensus is clear: Conditions for these kinds of large-scale disasters grow more favorable thanks to rising temperatures brought by climate change. Unless steps are taken to curb the emission of greenhouse gasses, our state will only be at greater risk for such catastrophic weather events—the devastating price of negligence, paid in lives, property, and treasure. In the meantime, people like Sander and James will watch the approaching fire season with an uneasy eye, ready for the worst.

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