I live in south central Oklahoma, over 150 miles from the largest of the two recent wildfires. Since April 12th, over 350,000 acres have burned in western Oklahoma in these two wildfires. Both fires are almost contained thanks to much-needed rainfall. But it’s been a long battle and lives have been lost.
Even though I’m not that close to the fires, on a windy days, we were covered with smoke. It was so bad that emergency management around the state had to ask people to report smoke only if they can see where it’ss coming from – 911 was overloaded with calls.
An Increased Risk for Firefighters
For me, these fires are personal. Most of Oklahoma’s firefighters are volunteers and my dad is one of them. My dad’s department was part of a task force sent to battle the western Oklahoma fires. It can be scary because we rarely have contact with him while he is fighting fires. The families of firefighters just wait and hope their loved ones are safe.
As summer approaches, I’m hoping this year won’t be too bad. Just under half of Oklahoma is experiencing a drought, and this is generally our wet season. Dry years mean more wildfires. This is the third year in a row that Oklahoma has had a megafire – a fire burning more than 100,000 acres. Last year a wildfire burned more than 830,000 acres, and the year before one burned nearly 400,000 acres on the Oklahoma/Kansas border.
Climate Change Signs
Climate change impacts the water cycle, causing a risk of both extreme droughts and heavy rains. And Oklahoma is seeing these signs. It seems each year the weather is more and more extreme. And more fires means more worry about my dad.
In 2015, Oklahoma had the wettest single month on record (May), and the wettest year. I don’t think many will forget the deadly floods and tornado outbreak. We needed rain, but too much, too fast, comes with a big cost. This rain extended Oklahoma’s growing season into the winter. That unusual lush landscape dried out quickly in 2016 and it created the fuel for the Anderson Creek fire.
Now, over 28% of the state has been in a severe to extreme drought since the start of the year. Currently, almost 20% of Oklahoma is in an exceptional drought, the highest level.
We also have to worry about the eastern redcedar trees. Oklahomans know to stay away from these trees during wildfires, because they don’t just catch on fire, they blow up! Their cedar oil is highly flammable and that makes fires harder to get under control.
We’re getting some wet weather now, and hopefully drought conditions will start to improve. But Oklahoma summers are hot and dry. It’s hard to predict what the future will bring. For the sake of the firefighters, and the families of Oklahoma, we must have continued weather and climate change research. Please contact your lawmakers and tell the to keep their citizens safe.