Drought and wildfires compound Oklahoma's woes

This summer -- when rainfall in July was just three one-hundredths of an inch -- has been punishing

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STILLWATER, Okla. -- In the No. 2 fire station here, there is a whiteboard with a crude drawing of a skull and crossbones with the words: "hydrate or die."

It's not an idle warning.

A few weeks ago, members of the Stillwater Fire Department stood on a platform of their wildfire truck pumping water onto the flames of a conflagration that took out 6,887 acres, or 12 square miles of land, and 27 homes just outside the town's limits of Stillwater. Seventy percent of those dwellings were uninsured.

Despite all the destruction, the good news was that nobody died in what was called the Glencoe Fire, named for a little town closer to the origin of the blaze. On the day that fire started, the temperature in Stillwater was 111 degrees.

Stillwater is the 10th-largest city in a state that is bigger than Pennsylvania by half, in terms of area, but has about a quarter of the population. Summers there are normally hot and dry, but this summer -- when a day with temperatures in the 90s was considered cool and rainfall is July was three one-hundredths of an inch -- has been punishing.

The entire state is a tinderbox. After the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, Oklahomans were encouraged to plant Eastern Red Cedar trees to form windbreaks along the plains. Trees have proliferated into forests around Stillwater and the drought has turned those into fuel for the wildfires, such as the Glencoe Fire, which started from sparks from a welder.

Signs along the highways announce a statewide burn ban and warn, "Do not drive through smoke."

The U.S. Drought Monitor calculates that 99.62 percent of Oklahoma is suffering from severe to exceptional drought. As of Thursday, after an inch and a half of rain fell over the weekend, Stillwater's drought was still categorized as extreme.

On Aug. 18, the mere two-tenths of an inch of rain that fell was a marvel to the residents there. Stillwater's Mayor, John W. Bartley, walked outside just to feel what it was like.

Wildfires are but one of the many dramatic impacts of the drought: Newspapers in the area have warned of a coming storm of crickets, because beetles that eat their eggs were wiped out by the heat.

In some areas of the state, building foundations and roadways are crumbling because the land supporting them has dried out.

And then there are the water main breaks: The ground in Stillwater is mostly red clay, and without moisture, that clay has started to shrink and then settle as it dries.

Dan Blankenship, the director of the Stillwater Utilities Authority, said about a fifth of the water mains are century-old cast iron pipes and the city has had quite a few break.

"In many instances, the ground around the pipe is the structural component of the conduit. Thus, when the ground shifts, the pipe breaks and water starts bubbling up on the surface," he said.

In an area coping with a drought, the last thing the city needs is a water break, even though municipal water supplies are not low enough to warrant cutbacks by the users.

On top of it all, heat makes everything more difficult. Since the start of summer, Stillwater has had 38 days when the temperature rose over 100 degrees.

Mr. Blankenship said the water department workers began the work day as early as 5 a.m. to beat the worst heat of the day, and the city makes sure there is plenty of drinking water at work sites.

If there's a silver lining this year, it's that a new city organizational plan has made it easier for the various city departments to work together.

A year and a half ago, city manager Dan Galloway reorganized the city government to encourage communication and cooperation across the departments. Some functions were consolidated so that instead of the public works, fire and police departments each having their own mechanics, the mechanics were pooled for city vehicles. The same was true for clerks.

It all helps when the region has to cope with fires like the one that started on Friday, Aug. 3. By that Saturday, Chief Tom Bradley had crews from 50 different agencies -- including the state, surrounding communities and the Red Cross -- helping to either battle the blaze or support those who were.

Firefighters and trucks from as far away as Woodward, Okla., three hours to the west, were on the scene. Stillwater alone had put 65 of its 73 firefighters to battling the blaze and the Oklahoma National Guard dropped water from a helicopter.

Chief Bradley put out the call to the state: "We need more help."

The answer came back: There was nothing more available. They were busy fighting fires elsewhere.

The Stillwater fire was at the edge of a dirt road called Airport Road. That area, which was spared by the fire, is outside of the city limits but is heavily populated -- mostly with people living in trailer homes.

During the fire, when the mobile command center got too hot to inhabit, Mr. Blankenship's crews from the city electric utility were out providing extra generators to power the air conditioning without having to go through various chains of command.

The city government has also received support from local residents. During the fires, so many residents arrived with cases of bottled water and drinks that finally officials had to turn them away.

Since then, there have been clothing drives, particularly back-to-school clothes, for families who lost everything.

Volunteers have traveled from other states to help clear demolished homes so that homeowners can rebuild. In most cases, the homes lost were a total loss even down to the foundations, which cracked in the intense heat.

Chief Bradley said the buildings that are hardest to save are those with a thicket of trees and brush around them.

Kirby Evelsizer lost his barns and his wood shop, but both his house and his son's were saved after a county worker driving a grader cleared a fire break around them, knocking the brush away. Mr. Evelsizer said he had enough warning to save his vehicles, but if the house had started burning, it would have been a total loss.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency approved aid to help those hurt by the largest of the blazes, in Creek County, which is right next to Payne County where Stillwater is located. There, 58,500 acres burned and 380 homes were lost, with 80 percent of them uninsured.

Wildfires in Payne County damaged 63 homes, destroying 59. According to the Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management, 59 of those homes lacked property insurance.

Chief Bradley said properties in that area are often uninsured because the homeowners have inherited the land, and thus didn't carry a mortgage on the property and were not required by banks or local authorities to insure the residences.

The fires in Payne County, along with those in Oklahoma and Cleveland counties, accounted for damage to a total of 192 homes, 158 of which were uninsured, with total destruction of 174. Claims for those were denied disaster assistance in a letter from FEMA administrator Craig Fugate, who ruled there wasn't enough damage from those fires to warrant federal assistance.

Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin, a Republican, blasted the lack of federal aid to so many who lost their homes and said she would appeal. "I am extremely disappointed in FEMA's decision to deny disaster assistance to all Oklahomans who have been tragically impacted by these fires," she said in a news release.

"It seems ridiculous to me that houses lost in fires occurring within the same period, on the same day in some cases, would arbitrarily qualify for aid in some counties while not in others. Mr. Fugate's letter not only seems bureaucratic but cruel."

Overall, the state has lost 114,000 acres, or 178 square miles, to the wildfires this summer.

Stillwater officials are hoping for rain and a very wet winter, but so far even Hurricane Isaac is mostly passing them by.

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Ann Belser: abelser@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1699.


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