Despite recent rainfall, Southwest Oklahoma emergency planners and fire departments are preparing for the worst as warmer weather approaches.
Recent years have seen large wildfires consume land and homes, as well as fire department resources. Despite recent rains, not enough has fallen to prompt emergency personnel to stand down from the highest state of alert. With drying-up water resources, responders are forced to plan how to conserve the most valuable weapon against fire in their arsenal.
Fresh from helping direct the third annual Destry Horton Wildland Firefighting School Feb. 15-17 on Fort Sill, Lawton Fire Training Officer Jared Williams said the drought is going to hit the departments in multiple ways. The first punch comes from dry vegetation, which makes good fuel for fire.
"This year we again appear to be into a very challenging wildfire season," Williams said. "If the current trend continues we will again see tinder box conditions."
Firefighting is a water-intensive battle, Williams said, and the prospect of its scarceness could limit efforts to keep fires under control. That's troubling because the departments' primary goal is safety, he said and lack of water could cause an incident commander to hesitate before committing to a course of attack.
"We utilize water as our primary suppressant for fires, and if we are running low on water we may have to change some of our tactics," Williams said. "It does affect the way we are able to provide for the safety of everyone on our scenes."
A long-term effect means taking a closer look at exposure protection and not actually fighting the fire, Williams said. That is called structural triage, he said.
"Basically, when we show up we may have to let the fire burn, but just keep it from burning any other houses," Williams said. "It would be extremely difficult to look at a homeowner and just say ‘I am sorry, there is nothing we can do.'"
Those are words no responder wishes to share, and concerted efforts are undertaken to avoid that outcome.
Task force coordinates
Comanche County Emergency Management Director Clint Wagstaff said Comanche County's 19 fire departments have been monitoring water and have worked to coordinate their efforts and with the surrounding counties. As well as forming its own task force, he said, agreements with surrounding counties' task forces have bolstered confidence should a major fire occur. He said there's at least 30,000-40,000 gallons of water stored in the tankers awaiting the call. Tax funds and grants have allowed the departments the ability to upgrade equipment and obtain the tankers and supply trucks that are needed.
"Right now, Flower Mound, Meers and Geronimo each have 6,000-gallon tankers ready to roll," Wagstaff said. "We've got a good group of firefighters around here."
Williams concurred and said a fire at Republic Paperboard last April was a case of successful mutual cooperation. He said the area departments were an integral part of the water shuttle process that consumed almost 2 million gallons of water during the fight's first night.
"Our partners in Comanche County are a great asset to us and the entire county," Williams said. "If we continue to have water issues, that type of cooperation will be the only thing that will bring us through."
Cache Fire Chief Dale Winham said his department has been taking advantage of a relatively mild winter to prepare equipment for a battle that isn't an "if" but a "when."
"We know we're in a drought condition and it's not going to get any better," Winham said. "We're gearing up for it."
Enhanced mutual aid agreements have allowed Comanche County departments to coordinate and help each other supply for a battle. Much of the preparation is more than tending to equipment, Winham said, and communications systems have been improved.