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.
Ashwood said as many as 10 wildfires are reported to authorities each day. A wildfire that started on July 25 in southwestern Oklahoma burned about 30,000 acres before it was finally contained.
Ashwood said state agencies, including the Department of Public Safety, the National Guard and the Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry, are working closely together to respond to wildfires and prevent injuries and property damage. Parts of the state have had extreme drought conditions since April 2010, he said.
"We've had incredible droughts and wildfire seasons," Ashwood said. "For the foreseeable future, it's going to remain hot."
Oklahoma City broke a heat record Tuesday with a high temperature of 108, besting the previous record of 107 set in 1980. And meteorologist Marc Austin of the National Weather Service in Norman said more heat is in the forecast.
"We're not only heating up during the day, we're also heating up from the heat the day before. It's just perpetual," Austin said. "We're getting plenty of sunshine. That's also blocking us from getting any kind of rain."
Austin said rainfall in the state is about 2 inches below average so far this year, but that since the beginning of June, the state is 6 inches below normal. He said no storm systems are in the state's forecast.
"Eventually, we are going to get a front through here. I don't see that happening in the next seven days," Austin said. "It could potentially get worse."