TULSA, Okla. – Oklahoma has been placed under a national fire advisory as much of the state struggles with unrelenting drought and tinder-dry vegetation capable of igniting and quickly spreading out of control, state forestry officials said Wednesday.
The rare advisory — and the first for Oklahoma — issued by the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho, is in effect for two weeks and warns residents and fire departments to prepare for potentially severe wildfires.
The national center also cautioned that areas in the neighboring states of Texas, Colorado, New Mexico and Kansas could be ripe for similar extreme wildfires through February. While only two of Oklahoma's 77 counties are currently under a burn ban, Oklahoma Forestry Services officials cautioned residents Wednesday to "avoid doing anything that can cause a spark."
The ingredients for a potentially disastrous fire outbreak are already in place in the mounds of accumulated limbs, dry brush, leaves and needles from years of ice storms and tornadoes that carpet forest floors.
"The situation we're in with the state of our fuels, drought, dryness of fields, fires become more resistant to control under these conditions," said Mark Goeller, the forestry services fire management chief. "Pine needles, logs, big-diameter woody material ... the things from these natural disasters we've experienced throughout the state, all those fuels are critically dry."
Oklahoma is just entering its peak fire season of February and March, but dozens of wildfires have already scorched thousands of acres in the past two months.
Last week, a fast-moving wildfire 30 miles north of Oklahoma City devoured two homes, outbuildings and hay bales. In December, seven fires broke out in one afternoon across Oklahoma City; another consumed 200 acres near the town of Tecumseh the same month.
"We're just entering a period where things can get really dicey with the fire situation," said state climatologist Gary McManus. "We have set ourselves up for more of a damaging wildfire season."
Oklahoma is enduring a drought that has lasted for several years. Except for a handful of counties in the very southwestern part of the state, most of Oklahoma is in some state of drought, according to the latest data from the U.S. Drought Monitor.
Conditions are worse in southeastern Oklahoma, where roughly eight counties are in an extreme drought, according to the monitor.
Wheat farmer Jim Freudenberger said Wednesday he's keeping closer watch over his 750-acre property in Coyle, a town in north-central Oklahoma where several wildfires have recently broken out.
"Seems every time the wind gets up good, there's a fire somewhere," he said.