Firefighters continued to douse hot spots Monday after a massive grass fire burned hundreds of acres Sunday in Earlsboro.
Residents of about 20 to 30 homes were evacuated during that fire, with residents taking refuge at Tecumseh city hall.
Tecumseh Fire Chief Aaron Williams, who served as one of the incident commanders on scene, said they initially estimated about 800 acres burned, but technology from the department’s I-pad apps have calculated about 650 to 700 acres were affected.
Trash being burned was determined as cause of the blaze, Williams said. At the time of the fire, there was no burn ban in place, but Pottawatomie County commissioners on Monday enacted a 30-day countywide burn ban, making it illegal for anyone to burn trash or have any type of outdoor burning, including campfires.
Williams said Tecumseh fire crews were called to assist Earlsboro at a fire Sunday afternoon at 19642 Crosslin Road.
He said when they arrived, the fire had already skipped into a heavily wooded area that fire crews couldn’t access.
From there, the fire split, he said, with one moving more north and the other northeast.
“We had two different heads of fire and the fire grew bigger,” he said.
Crews realized it couldn’t be contained and called for additional help from Shawnee firefighters among others, he said, as every fire department in Pottawatomie County sent a truck and crews to the scene and the Citizen Potawatomi Nation also provided its tanker. Others from nearby areas assisted, including Cleveland County’s task force with crews from Norman, Moore, Slaughterville, Lexington and Little Axe.
In addition, the Oklahoma National Guard sent a CH-47 Chinook helicopter to gather pond water and make drops on the fire. An Oklahoma Forestry official also was on scene, Williams said.
Evacuations were ordered for homes between Crosslin Road and SH 9A and between Hardesty and Benson Park roads.
Overall, the fire traveled about a two-mile path about one-mile wide, he said, with fire areas reported to almost Bob Crouch Road.
Williams said crews focused efforts on saving people’s homes before anything else. Lost in the blaze were an abandoned house that wasn’t occupied, along with two outbuildings and a barn, and a few vehicles from a salvage yard, he said.
Crews took breaks as they could to cool off with drinks provided by the American Red Cross, Williams said, and one firefighter was treated at the scene by REACT EMS paramedics for some heat exhaustion.
Although most crews now have wildland firefighting gear, which is lighter to wear and work in than traditional gear for fighting house fires, the triple-digit temperatures were a major factor, he said, as crews had to be especially cautious and rotate when possible into the rehabilitation area.
Page 2 of 3 - Robert Mize said his family’s pastureland was burned and they planned for the worse, just in case.
“We moved a lot of stuff out and were ready to leave if they couldn’t stop it,” Mize said.
But they did stop it. Mize praised the firefighters from numerous area departments who were out there battling the blaze and saving homes.
And with six to eight homes nearby, he said all were spared because of the work of firefighters.
“I was amazed none of them burned — they worked hard to keep houses from burning,” Mize said. “The fire burned very fast…they did an outstanding job.”
Fire crews did face some problems with people sightseeing in the areas of the fire, Williams said, and those people were asked to leave the area.
Williams, who said incident commanders have to be responsible for the safety of fire crews as well as saving homes, said sightseers can cause problems as firefighters then become responsible for their safety.
And when smoke is thick, those driving around to look put themselves and fire crews in danger, Williams said.
“Please don’t go sightseeing — we’re spread thin as it is,” he said.
As the fire grew larger, Williams helped out as incident commander on the south side, while Shawnee Fire Chief David Short was incident commander on the north end.
Short, who said Williams did a great job at the scene, said all of the fire crews “worked super, super hard.”
Short also said he didn’t have a count, but said many homes were saved from the fire.
Williams, who said many of the county’s fire departments have volunteer firefighters, said they were fortunate it was a Sunday so most were close to home and available.
As crews battled that grass fire, several roadways also were closed. Benson Park Road was closed from about 3 p.m. to 10:15 p.m. and a portion of SH 9 was closed about 25 minutes late Sunday night.
Williams praised Earlsboro firefighters and said residents of that area should be especially thankful to them. Earlsboro fire crews stayed on site overnight to douse hot spots and were still on many scenes doing the same late Monday afternoon, Williams said.
Because of exceptional drought conditions all over the state, Gov. Mary Fallin on Monday also declared a state of emergency for all 77 Oklahoma counties.
“Extreme heat and dry conditions continue to affect the entire state,” Fallin said. “My administration will be ready to help provide whatever aid and assistance it can as Oklahoma communities work to cope with this drought.”
The executive order allows state agencies to make emergency purchases related to disaster relief and preparedness. It is also a first step toward seeking federal assistance should it be necessary.
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