Wind, drought feed fires on Fort Sill
April 21, 2011
FORT SILL, OKla. (April 21, 2011) -- Gusty winds fanned the flames of multiple fires on Fort Sill as the worst drought in Oklahoma recorded history continued with only the possibility of rain many days away.
Blazes began April 11 as a house fire consumed a structure off Geronimo Road. Clint Langford, Fort Sill assistant fire chief, said 80 to 90 percent of the department was recalled out to the house fire that afternoon.
Staff Sgt. James Hale and his wife, Samantha, were packing for a PCS when movers told them smoke was coming in through the living room ceiling of their duplex at 5571-A Kaiser Road.
Hale ran outside and saw 5- to 6-foot flames coming out of a bedroom from his neighbor's side of the duplex.
Five movers, Hale, Samantha and their son, Andrew, and a couple neighbors quickly got out of the house. Hale and some neighbors called 9-1-1.
"We noticed it about 3:30 p.m. and got everybody out," said Hale, of the 100th Brigade Support Battalion. He said it was a couple of minutes and there were two firetrucks on scene, quickly followed by a third.
Eighteen Fort Sill Fire and Emergency Services firefighters, as well as numerous post police, safety, rescue and investigative officials responded.
What made this a particularly difficult fire was that the duplex had a double-roof design, said firefighter Hoby Williams, assistant chief of operations.
In a double roof, anytime a fire gets into the attic, it gets to common areas on both sides of the duplex, and it can be hard to control, he said. Double roofs only have about two feet or less of clearance inside.
About all the firefighters could do was tear the roof off the 2,800 square-foot duplex as they sprayed it down. It took firefighters about five hours to completely extinguish the flames, Williams said.
Hale said there was a wonderful response from the Army community to help his family. Picerne Military Housing officials gave Hale keys to another dwelling as he watched his home burn.
Chaplain services provided counseling and assisted the families with their needs, said Chaplain (Capt.) Bill Lutz, 2nd Battalion, 18th Field Artillery, 75th Fires Brigade.
Less than 12 hours later, fire ignited on Fort Sill's Falcon Range, consuming more than 1,500 acres of vegetation April 12 and 13. Officials determined the blaze began when an Air Force jet hit the bull's-eye during a training flight.
Flying near mid-day, the jet dropped a 500-pound nonexplosive concrete training bomb that struck a derelict vehicle on the range, sparking the fire. Drought conditions and tinder-dry vegetation caused it to quickly spread. Langford said the 25- to 30-minute drive out to Falcon Range gave the fire time to intensify.
"By the time we got there it was too late to do anything with it," he said. "Our firefighters put up a great effort and tried to do a backfire, but there was no stopping it."
High winds made the firefight extremely difficult. Langford said his crews would fight the head of the fire only to see embers soar over their heads landing 400-500 feet in front of the main blaze. Looking back, firefighters would see new fires leap up.
By mid-morning the fire had scorched its way into the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge. The Oklahoma Department of Forestry established a unified command in the refuge, and fire crews continued to fight the flames that marched incessantly into the wilderness area.
Langford said the conflagration grew so rapidly because its scope quickly dwarfed the amount of fire-department assets the county was able to bring to bear. He said the refuge forestry personnel had a great resource system and began requesting federal firefighting teams to respond. However, they would take at least two days to arrive. That left Fort Sill and refuge firefighters to battle the blaze.
The first day Fort Sill mustered 19 firefighters and the refuge 12. On subsequent days this number was further cut down to less than 15 firefighters due to exhaustion and the refuge department splitting their personnel to cover two shifts instead of just the normal day shift. This small force was hardly a match for the destructive power of the advancing inferno.
"Basically, we were putting a band-aid on the problem; we tried to corral the fire away from the Treasure Lake Job Corps and were able to accomplish that," said Langford.
Following the lengthy battles Tuesday, firefighters were summoned again for another full day on the refuge Wednesday.
Normally, southwest Oklahoma would now be entering the wet, rainy season, and new growth would diminish the fire danger. Hoby Williams, Fort Sill assistant chief for operations cited weather statistics that showed this is the driest year in 88 years of recorded weather history for Oklahoma. Single-digit relative humidity combined with high winds provided all the essentials for a bad fire. Langford said it was like setting a match to gasoline.
Langford compared the current drought to the infamous Dust Bowl Era. The only difference is that was a time of poor farming practices and poor water conservation and land management. There was no vegetation and high winds blew a lot of the top soil away.
"Now we have the vegetation, but it's dry; and with the heavy rains of the past couple years the fuel load has increased," he said.
Combined with that, the ice storm that ravaged Fort Sill in January 2010 contributed vast amounts of debris further fueling fires. Williams said firefighters normally like to see blazes enter trees, because the fuel load underneath is usually less than in open grassy areas. In this case, the forest floor was littered with broken tree tops and branches, even worse was the condition of that wood.
"These were limbs that had cured and were dry throughout; hard fuels like that can't just be sprayed with water and the fire goes out," Williams said. "It's like pouring water on a log burning in the fireplace at home and expecting it to go out. That won't happen; it's going to rekindle and alight again."
Entering the refuge's Charron Gardens Wilderness Area, the advancing fire met extensive rock formations and rugged terrain. Because it's a wilderness area, there are laws that prohibit mechanized vehicles, even firefighting vehicles, from entering. Sill firefighters engaged the fire with hand tools and backpacks. Langford said it was a case of clearing unburned vegetation away from that already burning and smothering the flames with dirt, one shovel full at a time.
Oklahoma Army National Guard helicopter pilots augmented fire crews on the ground as they dumped water from on high then refilled in refuge lakes.
Relief arrived April 13 as a U.S. Forest Service crew of more than 120 professional wild land firefighters attacked the fire. Langford said they were some of the most elite crews from various parts of the United States having fought fires in Colorado, California, and throughout the Appalachian Mountains.
"The best thing for us to see was the massive number of firefighters and the logistical means at which they were able to put all that crew to work in a short amount of time; they were very well organized and efficient," said Langford.
Ordinarily, this would allow Fort Sill's firefighters some much-needed rest time, and for most that is what they got. However, some responded to yet another fire that ignited in the cantonment area on the east side of post.
Just when Fort Sill firefighters thought they might get a chance to take a breath Thursday, three brush trucks were called to a comparatively small grass fire on the southern edge of the 434th Field Artillery training area.
That fire started when the metal blade on an edger struck a rock and the sparks ignited the dry grass.The fire got into a small creek bed in a stand of trees, and the firefighters had to work the brush trucks carefully to get to the flames. At one point, Langford said the fire was working up the trees and the wind was blowing burning embers dozens of yards away.
It took several hours for the firefighters to knock down the flames and cool hot spots, saving a training site that had bleachers and portable lights. The fire burned about an acre but didn't destroy any property, and nobody was injured.
Fort Sill firefighters were finally able to catch their collective breath Saturday and most of Sunday. No fires were reported on post either day.
Langford said one brush truck with two firefighters was called out to a large grass fire south of Elgin Sunday afternoon as part of a mutual aid call that involved at least 10 other fire departments. The Fort Sill firefighters' main job was to make sure the raging fire didn't get on post.
In the process of knocking down the flames near Fort Sill's Wyatt Range, the Fort Sill crew is credited with saving a home that backs up to Fort Sill's fence line.
Editor's note: Cannoneer photojournalists James Brabenec, Jeff Crawley and Keith Pannell contributed to this story.