The Norman Transcript

July 13, 2013

Oklahoma wildfire risk growing in dry heat

By Ken Miller
The Associated Press

OKLAHOMA CITY — The searing, dry and windy weather that has gripped Oklahoma in recent weeks, shriveling pastures and forests in some areas, has greatly increased the risk of wildfires in the state, a forestry official said Friday.

While much of the state was deluged by heavy rain and flooding caused by the deadly storms of May and early June that raked Oklahoma with tornadoes, strong winds combined with temperatures near or above 100 degrees have evaporated that moisture, said Michelle Finch-Walker, a spokeswoman for the Oklahoma Forestry Service.

The storms of May and early June dumped more than 6 inches of rain in parts of eastern Oklahoma, and 2 to 4 inches in a more generalized area, according to the Oklahoma Climatological Survey.

“It probably feels to the citizens like we’ve had rain. Emotionally though we’re not clicking out there that it’s dry,” Finch-Walker said.

In its weekly drought update posted online Thursday, The U.S. Drought Monitor showed that as of Tuesday, the western third of Oklahoma — or more than 30 percent of the state’s land area, was experiencing extreme or exceptional drought, which are the two most severe categories. Cotton County, in southwest Oklahoma, has issued the state’s first burn ban of the season, which extends through Aug. 6, according to the forestry service.

“Those (western) counties are really in a dire situation, and in eastern Oklahoma the wildland fuel is starting to dry out and would be fuel,” for a fire, said Mark Goeller, the state’s assistant forestry director and fire management chief.

The storms of May and early June that struck in the Oklahoma City metro area and moved eastward left behind what is becoming fire fuel, according to Oklahoma State Forester George Geissler.

“Fuels such as grasses, downed tree limbs and debris from the recent tornadoes are definitely drying out,” Geissler said.

The state forestry service has battled fewer than half-a-dozen wildfires in 2013, Finch-Walker said. The largest was a fire that scorched about 300 acres in northeastern Oklahoma.

In 2012, the service fought 1,159 fires that burned about 160,000 acres, the largest being a 58,500-acre blaze near Mannford, west of Tulsa.

Oklahoma could get a brief respite from the searing, dry heat early next week. The National Weather Service is forecasting a 20 to 40 percent chance for rain on Monday with highs mostly in the mid to upper 80s.