Oklahomans at the Mercy of the Weather

ByABC News
January 1, 2006, 1:53 PM

OKLAHOMA CITY, Jan. 1, 2006 — -- The wildfires are claiming lives or property in towns that are no more than a speck on the map -- Pink, Luther, Achile, Little Axe, Seminole, Granbury, Kennedale and Cross Plains.

Some of these towns have small volunteer fire departments that struggle against overwhelming odds when flash fires flare up with no warning -- fires that spread so quickly with the wind that homeowners have little time to do more than grab their pets and purses, and flee.

The fires may not be big, but there are so many little ones that the cumulative damage is substantial.

Pink, Okla., is off Highway 9 in the eastern part of the state. None of the buildings in town are pink, which made us wonder why the town is named Pink.

The fire department in this tiny town was empty when we arrived, trying to find the source of smoke that was so voluminous it showed up on Doppler radar. Trucks were parked haphazardly, showing how quickly the volunteer firefighters responded and their urgency to get to the fire and keep it from spreading.

The fire was hard to find. The biggest challenge often is reaching the flames in an area with few paved roads but packed with barbed-wire fences and creeks.

One exhausted firefighter resting by her truck told us, "You can't see nothing. You can't breathe. It's just kinda like fighting a fire in the dark."

Oklahoma has been in a prolonged dry spell since the first of November. Two people have died, 290 homes have burned down and 210,000 acres are charred by the wildfires that pop up randomly.

High winds and low humidity spawn the conditions for fires that are triggered bycigarettes thrown to the ground, arcing power lines and often arson.

Gov. Brad Henry is painfully aware of the challenge of a long fireseason that has just started.

"The damage is just absolutely devastating statewide," he said. "We've flown over thousands and thousands of charred acres. We expect, given the weather forecast, that the next several days are going to be very challenging. The fire danger is going to be extremely high and we are going to do everything we can to pre-position resources."

Oklahoma Fire Department Station 27 is on the northeast side of the sprawling city. Its firefighters have been going non-stop for days now. Their weariness is evident every time they pull back into the station after putting out one more flare-up. And they know the threat continues.

"We are in a terrible drought, and I don't anticipate that our fire season is going to go away any time soon," said Oklahoma City Fire Department Maj. Kevin Stoneking, checking his equipment before jumping into a truck to respond to another call. "We've got a long road ahead of us."

What makes the fires so much more devastating to some residents than a hurricane or a flood is their suddenness. There is no time to prepare, and no time to grab photo albums, baby pictures or medicines. There is only time to get out.