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Okla. forester: Drought increases wildfire danger

Associated Press Modified: July 31, 2012 at 8:15 pm •  Published: July 31, 2012

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — A deepening drought and persistent 100-degree temperatures are turning forests and crops into tinder boxes and increasing the danger of wildfires across the state, Oklahoma's top forester said Tuesday.

Oklahoma State Forester George L. Geissler said the entire state is experiencing at least a moderate drought and that extreme heat and a lack of rain are drying vegetation "to critical levels."

"The least little spark can ignite these," Geissler said. "These big fuels are going to ignite and will burn."

On Monday, Gov. Mary Fallin declared a state of emergency for all 77 Oklahoma counties due to extreme or exceptional drought conditions. The governor's executive order allows state agencies to make emergency purchases related to disaster relief and preparedness and is the first step toward seeking federal assistance if needed.

But state officials said average Oklahomans can reduce the danger by avoiding activities that might start a wildfire. Burn bans are currently in effect in more than 50 counties, and Oklahoma Emergency Management Director Albert Ashwood said avoiding outdoor burning is the best way to reduce the wildfire threat.

"Be extremely careful. Use a little common sense," Ashwood said.

A wildfire that broke out in Elgin in Comanche County forced the evacuation of 24 homes Tuesday, county spokesman Jacob Russell said. A burn ban is in effect in the county, but Russell said the wildfire was caused by an outdoor fire allegedly started by a man who was cited for an improper burn.

One firefighter suffered heat exhaustion while battling the blaze amid blistering heat that reached 111 degrees Tuesday afternoon, Russell said.

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