Wildfires highlight need for Oklahoma policymakers to look anew at suppression resources

The Oklahoman Editorial Published: August 9, 2012
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AS five large fires swept across Oklahoma on Friday night, Gov. Mary Fallin said every available state resource was being used to help local firefighters do their jobs. “The challenge,” Fallin said, “is we can use even more.”

We are reminded of that every time Oklahoma suffers through an outbreak of wildfires — the state can use more firefighting equipment. So let's get to work examining what is needed most, and see how we can go about obtaining it.

The wildfires that burned through the weekend, destroying dozens of homes and leaving at least one person dead, are only the latest round of fires that have torched Oklahoma in recent years. Last year's large fires in northeast Oklahoma City were among more than 1,700 wildfires that burned 132,000 acres across the state.

In spring 2009, about 100 homes were destroyed in Midwest City by wildfires that spread out of control due to heavy winds. The fire chief called it “probably the worst disaster in Midwest City's history,” eclipsing the destruction done by the May 3, 1999, tornadoes. In a span from Thanksgiving 2005 through March 2006, nearly 3,000 wildfires broke out in Oklahoma, torching half a million acres, destroying nearly 900 homes and killing three people, one of them a firefighter from Chickasha.

These fires are extremely taxing on local fire departments — their manpower and their equipment. In 2007, the Legislature made a $9 million appropriation to help make fire departments whole again. Last fall, independent oil and gas producer Apache Corp. said it would donate a firefighting vehicle to the city of Elk City, and committed $50,000 help other rural departments. Two lawmakers subsequently contacted the Oklahoma Association of Regional Councils, which has 11 offices across the state, about distributing private donations to fire departments in need.

Oklahoma Forestry Services has 42 units that each consist of a brush pumper, a transport truck and a fire suppression bulldozer. Are more needed? National Guard helicopters are used to scoop water out of lakes and ponds and dump it on fires — six were dispatched last weekend. Perhaps additional choppers are necessary. This is a big state, after all, with a lot of ground to cover.

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