IT seems counterintuitive, but the lack of fire is making out-of-control wildfires more likely in Oklahoma. This was reinforced in a legislative hearing this week on the spread of the Eastern red cedar.
An estimated 462 million Eastern red cedars dot Oklahoma; 700 acres of land are “lost” daily to the nuisance tree. The cedars consume as many as 40 gallons of water daily, making drought conditions worse and wildfires both more likely to occur and more uncontrollable when they do. Last summer's wildfires are evidence. Those blazes impacted at least four counties, destroyed 680 homes and businesses, and burned more than 114,000 acres. Cedars contributed greatly to the conflagration.
The trees also reduce wildlife habitat. Oklahoma has lost around 68,600 quail in the past decade; the number of quail hunters had fallen by about half over five years. The declines reduce supplemental income for landowners. Oklahoma's total annual economic loss from the Eastern red cedar is an estimated $447 million annually.
State Rep. Richard Morrissette, D-Oklahoma City, wants to encourage the growth of industries that harvest the cedar to combat its spread. That would be ideal, but it appears such ventures are currently uneconomical. No doubt, if Oklahoma cedars can be turned into a viable cash crop, entrepreneurs will quickly seize the opportunity — and the trees.
In the meantime, controlled burns appear the most effective way to combat cedar growth and prevent future wildfires. That's not always easy in newly developed areas, but the alternative is worse.
Fortunately, this nature-based practice hasn't been wiped out in Oklahoma. According to the Oklahoma Cooperative Extension Service at Oklahoma State University, more than 2.5 million acres in Oklahoma are control-burned each year. For now, the practice is the safest way to combat the cedar, preserve wildlife habitat and protect homeowners from the threat of inferno.