Okmulgee BIA fire station employee talks fire prevention, management
OKMULGEE, Oklahoma — Charlie Harley with the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Okmulgee Agency Branch of Wildland Fire Management said many believe his station operates like any standard town, which usually handles all types of fires.
“It’s kind of crazy to go in a burning house,” he said. “We like to stand out in a burning field and watch it come towards us.”
Harley serves as the wildfire prevention range technician and pointed out how his title reflects his branch’s duties.
“But we are just strictly wildfire,” he said. “And wildfire strictly pertains to anything that happens outside the house, in the fields, in the trees.”
With the temperature advisories announced every week as Oklahoma moves into the heart of summer, Harley said weather is not the only heat hazard starting to arise.
“Yes it’s starting to kick off and certain areas we’re getting small fires that volunteers are able to control right now, you know one to two acres fires here and there but nothing major,” he said.
With the high temperatures, he said the main concern right now is the drying out of what Harley called ‘fine fuels’ such as grass or pine needles making roadsides the main hazard.
“So chains being drug or driving on flat tires, rims sparking, those are the cars that are causing roadside fires,” he said.
He said higher dew points and heavier fuel sources like timber holding moisture during mid-summer keeps the possibility of more serious fires lower until around August.
“When the humidity is in the 60s and 70s, probability of ignition is still pretty low,” Harley said.
Harley said a lot of the crews in this area are sent west between March and August to help with fire season.
“We usually get rains and thunderstorms unlike out west in California and Colorado where if they get lightning, it’s usually accompanied by fires,” he said “No rain or any kind of precipitation.”
He said his crew calls in the favor when things start heating up in Oklahoma, along with some local assistance.
“We depend a whole lot on volunteer fire departments at the beginning of the fire season,” Harley said “They can quickly respond. They’re usually there within 10 to 15 minutes of the start of the fire.”
Harley said he has seen fires burn between five to 10 acres in three to five minutes, and the best thing to do when things start getting out of hand is call 911.
“The first thing everybody thinks of is they can stomp it out when the wind starts getting away, but it at least takes them a couple of minutes to realize, ‘it’s out of my control now,’ ” he said.
He said judging the response distance is the best way to decide whether to call his office or a local department.
“Because we may be on another fire or we still, like I said earlier, we may be 45 minutes from responding to that fire,” Harley said.
As a first preventative precaution, Harley said it is important to keep an eye on intentional fires.
“The majority of the fires we respond to are lit and not kept up or managed correctly,” he said. “Some people will light a fire and go back inside and watch TV and eat a sandwich and stuff like that.”
He reemphasized wind as a large factor to consider for any type of fire, noting it can cause them to escalate quickly or for the flames and smoke to go in an undesired direction.
Harley said controlled burns require proper equipment and manpower, and the wind issue can sometimes cause smoke to limit visibility on roads.
“Just burning regular yard debris, limbs, leaves that can be managed by one person, but you sill need the proper equipment out there with some water and rakes,” he said.
He said special equipment like bulldozers help them manage large out-of-control fires.
“When the fires move through pretty rapidly through the trees and through the grass, and they’re enclosed and pretty well sheltered; so they can cut the fire line and knock it down for us so we can get in there and mop up the rest of the hazards,” he said.
To vet their labor, he said the first qualification is physical fitness.
“It consists of carrying a pack that is 45 pounds for three miles and under 45 minutes,” he said. “Everybody thinks that’s just a walk in the park but 45 pounds gets heavy after awhile.”
Harley said another misconception about his department is they are a tribal department with stations throughout the jurisdiction.
“But we have more leeway than they do. They’re strictly there to take care of the tribe,” he said. “We can go out and assist other agencies. I mean some tribal programs have tribal fire and they do go out with us and assist other states.”
Harley said their station is located on the Muscogee (Creek) Nation Tribal Complex in Okmulgee but operated and funded by the BIA.
He said a plan had been discussed about having a tribal department at MCN, “but it was just rumors and as far as I know that was all it was and it went away.”
The BIA Okmulgee Agency Branch of Wildland Fire Management can be reached at: 918-759-9927.
“If you see a fire, contact your local fire department and we are always monitoring the radios and everything like that,” he said. “So we’ll respond if it’s in our area or around our jurisdiction.”