Dry conditions and relatively high temperatures will increase the risk of wildfires in Carter County and Oklahoma as a whole, according to the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry.
Fire staff forester Drew Daily said the problem comes from the extended drought most of the state is under, which will result in a longer, drier wildfire season.
“For 45 days or so we’ve received no moisture, and most of the state is nearing 50 days,” Daily said.
Wildfire season is divided into two
periods. Dormant season starts in November as plants provide plenty of dead leave, branches and grass to fuel fires. The second part typically lasts from February to March.
“This year, the peak period may be expanded,” Daily said.
Daily said it’s because of the lack of moisture that fuel is even drier than usual, raising the risk of fires. Winter temperatures are also likely to be warmer and drier than usual this year.
Carter County OSU extension agriculture instructor Leland McDaniel said in south central Oklahoma, the risks are even higher.
“Take your pick,” McDaniel said. “We’re dry, we’ve got a lot of standing foliage, and especially with high winds, it’s a severe threat.”
McDaniel said in these conditions, anything from an unattended campfire to a spark from a passing vehicle is enough to start a fire that can threaten populated areas.
“Our population has expanded, and in an effort to meet that, there’s more development and a lot of people have acreages,” McDaniel said. “50 years ago, you had larger areas where there weren’t homes and structures. Now in Carter County, there’s no place immune from a potential tragedy.”
McDaniel said that one common kind of tree, the eastern red cedar, poses an additional threat.
“Like California, we have created a very similar recipe for disaster in the Arbuckles by letting the eastern red cedars grow the way we have,” McDaniel said.
Eastern red cedars are native to Oklahoma, but historically their numbers would be reigned in by wildfires that swept over unpopulated areas. The high concentration of cedar oil in their bark makes them highly flammable, and in high numbers they provide plenty of fuel for a massive wildfire.
“If we don’t do something, someday we’re going to be on the national news and it’s not going to be pretty,” McDaniel said. “We are unwittingly storing a huge fuel load.”
The trees also require a lot of water. When they grow in large numbers, their leaves prevent rainwater from ever reaching the soil, which causes grass to stop growing. When heavy rain falls, the soil beneath the trees erodes and the water runs off, instead of absorbing into the ground.
McDaniel said he recommended that county residents visit the website http://www.forestry.ok.gov/firewise, that provides state-specific information on mitigating fire risks in suburbs and more rural areas. He also recommended that people in rural areas keep phone numbers for local volunteer fire departments, emergency management and the county sheriff on hand.
“It’s time to be a good neighbor,” McDaniel said. “If you see something don’t assume someone else will report it, people need to take it upon themselves.”
Daily said home and property owners in rural areas can take steps to protect both by keeping grass mowed short, raking leaves away from house foundations, clearing areas under decks, making sure agriculture equipment is maintained and keeping driveways clear of brush or hanging limbs so emergency vehicles can access their property.