By Sara GoodeyonNovember 9, 2012
MANNFORD, Okla. -- When wildfires raged in Mannford, Okla. Aug. 3-7, 12 U.S. Army Corps of Engineers employees set aside their regular duties to assist hundreds of firefighters in battling the blazes.
Those fires destroyed 446 homes and torched 60,000 acres of land in the tiny town near Keystone Lake, a Tulsa District USACE project. Many of the Corps employees live in the area and, while they were fighting to save citizens' property, some were also fighting to save their own.
The 12 employees were recognized for their efforts with the Department of the Army's Civilian Award for Humanitarian Service. USACE Maj. Gen. Michael J. Walsh, deputy commanding general for Civil and Emergency Operations, and Southwestern Division Commander Brig. Gen. Thomas Kula presented the awards Oct. 12 in a ceremony at Keystone Lake.
"It's during times like this when you have emergencies that you see Americans come together," said Gen. Walsh. "They put down their tools, whatever they are, and go to wherever people need assistance. Guys in the [USACE park ranger] suit have been around to lots of different places in the world, and that's not an ethic in a lot of places. They think, 'That's somebody else's problem; I don't need to worry about it.' Army Corps of Engineers guys and communities such as this in Oklahoma, when there's an emergency, the tools go down, and they pick up new tools and go get stuff done. How you influenced the lives of those people during the fire was significant."
The award cites service "above and beyond the call of duty during the wildfires," and "extraordinary efforts that significantly contributed to the safety and wellbeing of countless persons and their homes, livestock, and property during one of Oklahoma's worst wildfires in decades."
"It was a fire and drought year. It was so warm and then we got no rain and the vegetation just turned to tinder and that first week of August it just went up like a match," said Col. Michael Teague, USACE Tulsa District commander. "This had a huge impact on the city of Mannford because 83 percent of the victims did not have insurance. This has been a community tragedy, but also a community event that's brought everybody together. Lake Manager William Jeffries led the effort, and our guys stood along that fire line with the city crews and everybody else and fought the fires."
Mannford City Administrator Mike Nunneley was on the scene of the wildfires and witnessed the actions of the Corps employees in fighting the fires.
"There were 40 fire departments from all over the state, Arkansas, and Kansas that came in with about 400 firefighters," said Nunneley. "But it was so important to have the Corps fighting fires around here because they know this area. They know the trees, they know the roads, and they know the creeks. They know where we can stop [the fire] and where we can't stop it, and if you can't stop it there's no use wasting manpower. Go to a place where you can."
It was that intimate knowledge of the area around Mannford and Keystone Lake that ultimately helped contain the fire, said Nuneley .
"We finally stopped it on Highway 51 and if we didn't stop it there, it's nine more miles and 500 homes with no way of stopping it," said Nunneley. "They were very, very crucial. They got up in the tree area when it jumped Highway 51 and they had about 10 seconds to put it out before it became too large. They knew that and they were willing to get their trucks and their hoses in there and that's pretty much where it stopped on Saturday night at 9:00."
The Corps' assistance didn't stop after the fires were out, as fees were waived at camp areas at Keystone Lake for those misplaced by the tragedy. The lake staff also worked to coordinate the donation of campers for fire victims to use until other housing could be arranged.
Gen. Walsh said that when he was preparing for the trip to Oklahoma from Washington D.C., he spoke to USACE Commander Lt. Gen. Thomas P. Bostick. The commander was signing the certificates and he asked Walsh to give the recipients a message. That message was "well done."
Well done indeed.
Tulsa District USACE recipients of the Department of the Army's Civilian Award for Humanitarian Service: William Jeffries, Travis Miller, Shaun Wenzel, Dakota Allison, Cody Miller, M. Wayne Fry, Roger Moore, James Morris, Allen Ryan, Raef Perryman, Robert Sprague, Matt Mattioda.