By Russ Quinn
DTN Staff Reporter
OMAHA (DTN) -- Two large wildfires continue to burn in parts of northwest Oklahoma, fueled by dry conditions, high winds and low humidity. Though the winds had let up some by Friday, allowing firefighters to contain more of the fires, the blazes have already killed at least two people and have burned thousands of acres of land and destroyed several homes and ranches.
The fires, which are burning in three main sections, have raged since late last week, according to the daily Fire Situation Report on the Oklahoma Forestry Services website.
The largest of the wildfires is the Rhea Fire located in Dewey County, which has burned 289,078 acres and as of April 20 was only 25% contained. The 34 Complex fire, located in Woodward County in northwest Oklahoma near the town of Woodward, has burned 62,089 acres and was reported to be 60% contained.
One additional blaze was the Laverne Fire, which is located in Beaver and Harper counties in the Oklahoma Panhandle. This was a fairly small fire, only encompassing 100 acres, and was fully contained, according to the report on Friday morning.
"Suppression efforts on the Laverne, Rhea and 34 Complex (fires) were aided by improved weather conditions yesterday (Thursday)," the report stated. "Full containment was achieved on the Laverne Fire with significant advances in the containment percentages on Rhea and the 34 Complex."
Dana Bay, Oklahoma State University (OSU) Extension agricultural educator for Woodward County, told DTN the 34 Complex fire in Woodward County has caused significant damage. Many homes, an unknown number of cattle and horses, and miles of fence were lost, she said.
"One of the women who works in our office lost her home," Bay told DTN. "There is a substantial amount of livestock lost as well."
With the fires still burning in many areas of the county, it is too early to know how many houses and head of livestock were lost. Some reported losing just a few head, while others reported losing as many as 43 head, she said.
Bay helped with the aftermath of the fires last spring in neighboring Harper County where fires burned near Buffalo and north into southwestern Kansas. With this year's fire burning near the town of Woodward, she estimated more houses were destroyed and more horses were killed, as there are many small acreages just outside of town.
Farther to the south, the larger Rhea Fire is burning across Dewey County.
Justin Barr, OSU Extension agricultural educator for Ellis County just to the west of Dewey County, said delayed spring rains are the main reason for wildfires this spring across northwestern Oklahoma. With moisture seen last spring through the fall, the range grass grew well, but the region has received little moisture since last fall.
"The grass just acted as fuel for these fires," Barr said.
In addition to serving as agricultural educator for the county, Barr operates his family's ranch near the Ellis/Dewey County line. His own operation lost 1,400 acres of rangeland. He said he was able to run his cattle into a corral to protect them from the flames, and he didn't lose any animals.
Despite having fire burn across some of his land, Barr said he feels fortunate to still have a bed to sleep in, as many of his friends and neighbors lost their homes in the blaze.
With the fires starting to be contained, the attention now shifts to aid for ranchers in these areas.
Bay said the most-needed item right now is hay. With both grass and hay supplies burnt, many ranchers have nothing to feed their surviving livestock.
OSU Extension has organized drop-off areas in three counties for people wanting to donate hay to the affected ranchers in the region, she said. Seven drop-off sites are located in Dewey County, three in Woodward County and two in nearby Roger Mills County.
Bay said hay donations have started coming into these locations. A convoy of 10 trucks hauling hay from Michigan was expected in the coming days. Another convoy of 10 to 20 trucks was coming from eastern Oklahoma.
But hay donations appear to be coming in at a slower pace than they did after the wildfires last spring, according to Bay. She said there could many reasons for that, from less supplies due to how much hay was donated last year to higher forage prices resulting from various issues limiting hay production across the country.
Also needed are fencing supplies as well as supplemental cattle feed. Bay said there are several locations, including some with indoor storage, available to donate fencing supplies and bagged feed.
"We have even had some calls from people wanting to come in and help clean up and (help) with fencing," Bay said. "With the fires still burning, we can't proceed with this just yet."
While there are very few good things that come from wildfires, there may be one spot of silver lining to be found in the situation. After the fires are extinguished and once the affected rangeland sees some moisture, the quality of the grass that regrows is considerably better, Barr said. That's why prescribed burns are done to rangeland -- it improves the forage quality of the grass and reduces the possible fuel load, including eliminating unwanted species such as eastern red cedars.
"If we get some rains, which is predicted this weekend, in many cases Mother Nature will heal up the range without help from man," Barr said.
With moisture, the affected areas could be anywhere from 30 to 60 days away from grazing again, he said. Stocking rates would have to be lowered some in the affected areas, usually to only about half of the normal rate.
Barr said stocking rates vary some on the different types of rangeland in his home area. Normal stocking rates on good rangeland could be from one cow for every 15 acres to one cow for every 25 acres on lesser ground. Reduced stocking rates after the fires would probably be one cow to 30-50 acres of range, he said.
HOW TO HELP
Those wanting to help the victims of the northwest Oklahoma wildfires have several options.
A relief fund has been established by the Oklahoma Cattlemen's Foundation, a charitable arm of the Oklahoma Cattlemen's Association. One hundred percent of the donations will be distributed to ranchers affected by the fires, according to the organization's website.
Donations can be made online at http://www.okcattlemen.org/… or by mail. Make checks payable to Oklahoma Cattlemen's Foundation, with "Fire Relief" in the memo line and send checks to P.O. Box 82395, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma 73148.
As previously mentioned, OSU Extension is organizing donations of hay, fencing supplies and supplemental livestock feed. To donate or ask for assistance, call OSU Extension at (405) 590-0160, (405) 496-9329 or (405) 397-7912.
The Oklahoma Farmers and Ranchers Foundation is another organization collecting funds. Make checks payable to the Oklahoma Farmers and Ranchers Foundation with "Wildfire Relief" in the memo line and mail to 2501 N. Stiles, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma 73105. Their website is http://www.okfarmersandranchers.org/….
Another organization collecting funds is the Farmers Union Foundation. Make checks payable to Farmers Union Foundation Inc. with "Wildfire Relief" in the memo line and mail to the attention of Wildfire Relief at P.O. Box 24000, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma 73124.
Russ Quinn can be reached at email@example.com
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