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Hopes lean toward more rain, less wildfires for 2013 in Oklahoma

Since October 2010, the statewide average precipitation is more than 2 feet below normal, according to the Oklahoma Climatological Survey.
by Bryan Painter Published: February 2, 2013

Since October 2010, the statewide average precipitation is more than 2 feet below normal.

Friday, the calendar flipped to February, which isn't a good time to make up for deficits. It's the end of what climatologists and meteorologists officially call winter, and is normally the second-driest month of the year in Oklahoma.

That's bad news for the state's wildfire forecast, experts say, and a significant boost is needed soon.

“A good 6 to 9 inches of rain over the state in February would be good,” said Gary McManus of the Oklahoma Climatological Survey. “That is unlikely since the record for the month is 4.7 inches, but we need really good precipitation in the spring. Should we have a third bad spring rainy season in a row, the drought impacts we see now will pale in comparison, and a full third year of drought will be highly likely.”

While this is of concern to many Oklahomans, it's especially relevant to Mark Goeller, assistant director for the Forestry Services Division of the state Agriculture, Food and Forestry Department.

The Forestry Services Division fire protection area includes 15 counties in eastern Oklahoma, but the department also assists with fires outside its protection area.

Goeller said his greatest concern is that we are heading toward the growing season with the entire state still in severe to exceptional drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.

“We have made it through fall 2012 and most of the winter months with very little fire activity,” Goeller said. “Spring is approaching and the drought will limit our ability to use water-dropping aircraft due to how low most ponds and lakes are at this time.

“When the growing season hits in April and May, the meager moisture that we have received will quickly be gone and the vegetation will quickly cure as summer temperatures hit.”

In recent years

The Forestry Services Division battled 1,745 fires in 2011 that blazed across 132,103 acres, both inside their protection area and on fires for which they provided assistance. Last year, they fought 1,150 fires that burned across 159,417 acres.

One large fire, the Freedom Hills Fire in Creek County, burned 58,500 acres during the first week of August. That fire alone accounted for about one-third of the acres burned by fires that received Forestry Services assistance.

The division has 42 units, each consisting of a brush pumper-type vehicle, a transport truck and a fire suppression dozer and two firefighters, Goeller said.

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, Forestry Services can mobilize federal resources such as fixed-wing air tankers and firefighting helicopters.

Last year, firefighters across the state were suddenly faced with conditions nearly identical to the summer of 2011 due to the change in weather during late July and August that was combined with the ongoing drought, Goeller said.

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by Bryan Painter
Assistant Local Editor
Bryan Painter, assistant local editor, has 31 years’ experience in journalism, including 22 years with the state's largest newspaper, The Oklahoman. In that time he has covered such events as the April 19, 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah...
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