"It's going to be unbelievable," said Oklahoma State Fire Marshall Robert Doke in anticipation of the firestorms he expects on the heels of the December ice storm.
The state's top firefighter warned that, when the weather warms up and things dry out, a season of wildfires will ensue that will likely dwarf the infernos of 2005.
He said last year's abundance of rainfall has resulted in "extremely dense vegetation" throughout Oklahoma, which will fuel the inevitable wildfires. As if that weren't enough to worry about, he said the debris from the recent ice storm will become yet another layer of easily combustible kindling, but with a longer burning time than the grass and shrubbery that are the usual tinder.
"Some communities remove that debris at no expense to homeowners, but people in rural areas just outside of cities are responsible for that themselves," said Doke.
But, he also noted, when rural residents are surrounded by so much land with fallen debris, it isn't feasible to cart all, most, or even much of it away.
Also, he said, resources needed to fight the forecasted fires are somewhat scarce.
"Our volunteer firefighters are having trouble just keeping fuel in their vehicles," Doke lamented.
While firefighters and property owners are bracing for yet another biblical plague to befall Oklahoma, a handful of agricultural experts have a solution in mind that Smokey the Bear won't like, but might just be the state's best hope.
The choice is to sit and wait for Mother Nature to unleash her wrath and then try to manage the crisis, sparing as many lives and homes as resources and chance allow. Or, we can beat her to the punch by burning off the fuel under controlled conditions.
"We encourage people to look at fire as a management tool," said Clay Pope, executive director of the Oklahoma Association of Conservation Districts.
"That's how nature originally kept things in check," he added.
It's impossible to fully prevent wildfires, he told UTW, but he said prescribed burning is the best way to minimize the damage they bring to property and lives.
"We can greatly reduce the chances of these wildfires happening with prescribed burning," he said.
Pope has been an outspoken advocate for controlled burning as a land management tool, and has successfully lobbied the state Legislature to pass laws to encourage it by removing the criminal liability associated with it.
"Historically, our natural grasslands were burned every 5-10 years," said Dr. A.C. Bennett, retired chairman of Cameron University's agriculture department.
Concerning the devastating wildfires seen in recent years, and expected again in the months to come, he said, "The fuel load wouldn't be nearly as bad as it's been" if nature were allowed to take its course, or if it were deliberately taken on that course by man.
In recent years, Bennett has been a voice on a joint House and Senate task force on prescribed burning safety and liability, which was created at Pope's insistence.
He said the wildfires that have plagued Oklahoma were unheard of before white settlement.
The Cedar Effect
Lightning, or some other naturally-occurring trigger, would spark wildfires to burn off excess vegetation every few years--wildfires that were much less "wild" than what we see today, since there was so much less build up of fuel.
What wasn't naturally occurring was set in motion by Native American tribes, whom Bennett said routinely used fire for land management.
"After they'd burn an area, they knew there'd be game there to hunt the next year," he said.
Burning the land, he explained, rejuvenated the soil, leading to heartier crops and greener vegetation to attract game.
Today, though, most Oklahomans are under the influence of what's known in range management-circles as the "Smokey the Bear Syndrome," Bennett said.
He said the popular "Only You Can Prevent Forest Fires" campaign typifies the negative public attitude toward fire.
"We've got this big cultural mindset where we don't realize fire is a part of nature," concurred Pope.
"One of our first impulses, any time we see fire, we want to put it out," added Doke.
It's that impulse which has led to the massive build-up of fuel for the past century of statehood, including the infestation of invasive tree species, like the Eastern Red Cedar and the Salt Cedar.
Pope said these onerous conifers were previously kept in check by naturally-occurring wildfires, but with man's constant intervention and prevention, without the fires to halt their encroachment, they take over 700 acres of wildlife habitat, cropland and grazing pastures a day in Oklahoma.
As well as providing more fuel for the fires themselves, as well as falling debris in massive ice storms, each of the trees also makes other surrounding vegetation more combustible by consuming about 100 gallons of water a day, Pope said.
Also, he mentioned, pollen levels would be much lower in the state during allergy season if these invasive species weren't spreading so rapidly.
Because of the effectiveness of prescribed burning in preventing such wildfire-friendly conditions, landowners in rural areas often band together into burn associations to pool their efforts and expertise in torching land under controlled conditions.
"If you do it right, 99.9 percent of the time, you can avoid it getting out of control," said Pope.
The state's top firefighter agrees.
"It's a good tool to have to minimize wildfires," said Doke.
"It's easy to do, and it's safe if you do it right," he added.
Bennett said prescribed burns are "domesticated fires," as opposed to "wild" fires.
In the off chance that a controlled burn breaks loose from its cage, so to speak, landowners are not criminally liable for damages caused if they notified neighbors and their local fire department before the burn, according to state law (which was put in place largely because of Pope and others' lobbying efforts).
They are, however, still liable for property damage, which Pope said is a deterrent.
That was the reason he lobbied also for the controlled burning indemnity fund.
The Legislature created the fund, but Pope said there isn't any significant amount of money in it yet.
Ideally, he'd like to see the Legislature put aside $500,000 to $1 million for the fund, which would serve as an insurance policy for prescribed burns, which landowners could utilize by paying a $100 participation fee.
Bennett said he thinks the state should mandate that all rangeland should be burned every five years at least.
Without such a plan, and the resources to implement it, the effectiveness of burn associations in preventing devastating wildfires is limited, they both said
Pope, Doke and Bennett each pointed to public sentiment as the chief obstacle to such a development, though.
"It would require a massive cultural change," said Doke.
"Fire's a scary thing, and people just aren't enthusiastic about people burning near their land," said Pope.
But, what's the alternative? Won't a lot of people's land burn anyway?
"Unless we keep the fuel loads down this year, yes. The wildfires are going to be extremely bad," answered Bennett.
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