By Mitch MeadorJuly 12, 2018
FORT SILL, Okla., July 12, 2018 -- The Fort Sill Fire Department was a friend indeed when a fire broke out July 2, on the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge.
Tony Booth, refuge manager, said the fire was initially reported around 4:30 p.m. that day.
"It was almost certain that it was a lightning strike, and it was back in the Special Use Area," Booth said.
"The Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge sent out a general request for assistance, for anybody, that same day, that evening," he said. "It was apparent that the fire was moving fast and there was a danger. It was getting close to the (North Mountain) Wilderness Area, which limits what we can do (on) our options for managing the fire."
The Special Use Area is not open to the general public, and the fire broke out in a totally undeveloped area. Booth said if there had been no danger of the fire escaping, refuge firefighters would have just let it burn. However, in this case there was a danger of the fire spreading to private lands outside the refuge.
"So we had to request assistance. We didn't have enough people," the refuge manager said.
Fort Sill firefighters were among the first to respond. Jay Mickey, fire management officer for U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Oklahoma/North Texas fire zone, said they showed up when the fire first started and contined to work it until July 4.
Michael Patterson, Fort Sill deputy fire chief, said five-member crews were rotated through in 12-hour operational periods. Shift changes were at 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. For each shift, Fort Sill sent a battalion chief in a command vehicle to provide safety, accountability, and oversight. The battalion chief was in direct contact with the incident commander. Two brush trucks with two firefighters apiece also went out on each rotation.
The first rotation was from Fort Sill Fire Station No. 1 at the northwest corner of Randolph Road and Fort Sill Boulevard. That's the station closest to the West Range. The second rotation came from Fire Station No. 4, Building 6041 Rothwell Street, which is the station closest to Arbuckle Range.
Patterson said Fort Sill firefighters were called back to post July 4, to handle some range fires here as part of their normal duties.
By that time, fire crews had a black line surrounding the refuge fire and help from several other quarters.
"We first asked for assistance from within the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service," Booth said. A few firefighters came from other refuges within this zone, including Washita and Salt Plains National Wildlife refuges. The Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge's bulldozer was on loan to Salt Plains, so while waiting to get it back they borrowed one from the National Park Service's Chickasaw National Recreation Area at Sulphur, Okla., which sent both firefighters and equipment operators. The U.S. Forest Service provided an entire fire crew from Ouachita National Forest in Southeast Oklahoma.
Helicopters brought by 2nd General Support Aviation Battalion, 211th Aviation Regiment for pre-mobilization training at Fort Sill also contributed to the effort. The helos executed a "Bambi bucket" mission, dipping water buckets into Lake Elmer Thomas and flying them to the Special Use Area to douse flames in craggy areas inaccessible to fire crews on the ground.
Although a firebreak had been established all the way around the blaze, firefighters continued to put out stringers and hotspots July 5-7, Booth said.
"We're trying to monitor and control those edges. It's still hot near the borders, and then we're burning it out inside. It's about 4,100 acres right now," the refuge manager said July 5.
The fire was located due north of refuge headquarters in a place called Winter Valley and Geronimo Ridge. There was no property damage, but fire crews continued to monitor the situation closely.
"We've got to control it because of the weather. It's pretty hot, and if we get a good, strong south wind, it's going to blow it right over onto private land again. We can't take a chance," Booth said.