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Oklahoma wildfires take a toll on fire departments

Battling fires in triple-digit temperatures can exact a heavy burden on a fire department.
by Andrew Knittle Modified: August 7, 2012 at 8:35 pm •  Published: August 8, 2012

— After battling wildfires for four days straight and becoming involved in a full-blown arson investigation, Norman Fire Chief James Fullingim said the resources of his department are being fully utilized.

And then some.

Along with the financial strain, due to overtime and increased use of materials, the wear and tear on the department's firefighters — and the machines they use to do their jobs — is considerable.

“It definitely strains your resources. … Both the men and the equipment are stressed when something like this happens,” Fullingim said. “There are many of them, over the weekend … over a 72-hour period … worked over 50 hours.”

Fullingim said Norman firefighters typically work 12-hour shifts then return 12 hours later.

“In this case, that didn't happen,” he said. “We had many people who were out there for 20-plus hours.”

The wildfires keeping Norman firefighters busy have been intense, destroying scores of structures and roughly 8,000 acres of land. A body found by the Norman Fire Department could lead to more serious charges.

Physical injury

Despite the hazards, Fullingim said only one Norman firefighter had suffered an injury since Friday, a sprained ankle and possibly a broken foot.

He said heat-related issues are rare with Norman firefighters because they are constantly monitored by paramedics when they are in the field.

Indeed, when a small grassfire started burning near the Thunderbird Riding Stables on Monday afternoon, a paramedic was taken to the scene using a four-wheeler. A man carrying a large cooler full of water and Gatorade followed.

“They keep a close eye on them when they're out there,” Fullingim said. “We have EMSTAT with us all the time.”

Active cooling

Departments statewide prepare their firefighters for the stress of wildfires and other emergencies using a variety of tactics.

Oklahoma City Fire Department safety officer Jimmy Schiner said when fighting structure fires with bunker gear and breathing apparatus on, a firefighter may be carrying 60 extra pounds. The extreme summer heat just adds to the issue.

They certainly stress the need to hydrate well before the alarm sounds, he said. But Schiner said they also try to think about a firefighter's core temperature.

Schiner said Oklahoma City firefighters have been allowed since about late July to wear shorts and a shirt made of wicking material under their fire protective suit.

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by Andrew Knittle
Investigative Reporter
Andrew Knittle has covered state water issues, tribal concerns and major criminal proceedings during his career as an Oklahoma journalist. He has won reporting awards from the state's Associated Press bureau and prides himself on finding a real...
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