When it comes to wildland fires in Oklahoma, remember one simple thing: There will always be wildland fires, because the state’s ecosystems depend upon them.
The realization, says an official from the Oklahoma Forestry Services (OFS), a division of the Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry, helps folks be better prepared for when fires occur.
“We’re trying to get communities to recognize there is a risk for wildfires, and for them to be better prepared for when they occur – what we call being fire-adapted,” says George Geissler, Oklahoma State Forester. “You’re not going to keep all fires away or prevent them, but what you can do is make sure that the valuables you have are arranged in such a way that you don’t risk a catastrophic loss.”
Many communities lie within what is known as the wildland urban interface, which is comprised of areas where homes are built near lands prone to wildfires.
To help those communities become more aware of wildfire dangers and to enact a preparedness plan, OFS uses a variety of methods.
They provide the Community Wildfire Protection Plan that allows communities to work with fire and natural resource professionals to assess their area’s risk factors and determine a course of action.
Another tool OFS uses to promote readiness is the Firewise program. This national program provides information and recognition to communities engaged in preparing for wildfire. The communities must meet a set of criteria to be part of the program. Currently, Oklahoma ranks second in the nation for number of Firewise communities.
“The Firewise program recognizes communities for preparing for wildland fires by evaluating risk, identifying hazards that are present, and then doing things to lower their risk, such as promoting and creating defensible space around structures, making properties more accessible and teaching residents to be more fire aware,” Geissler says. “There are thousands of pieces of fire equipment and firefighters in the state, but we are always going to have fires present. We’re trying to keep these firefighters as safe as possible and have the best chance to save lives and property.”
OFS personnel also work with individuals to better prepare their homes for when wildfires occur. They use a program called Ready, Set, Go to give homeowners tools to prepare and to take action should they need to. More information on this is available on the OFS website.
“Most houses don’t catch fire from a big wall of fire,” Geissler says. “It’s the blowing embers that can get sucked up into vents or pile on roofs and near foundations.”
Droughts in recent years have exacerbated the problem of wildfires and affected the forestry industry in general.
“In southeast Oklahoma, we have lost thousands of acres of regeneration projects,” Geissler says. “Trees planted by private landowners, forestry companies, and both state and Federal agencies have died, and we’ve had to go back and replant a second time. We are even losing mature trees. Many are succumbing to insects and disease because they are no longer able to fight them off because of the drought.”