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May 9, 2014

Firefighters share wildfire combat experiences from Logan County fight

GUTHRIE — “It was absolutely gargantuan,” Firefighter Brett Conner said in describing the smoke plume of the Guthrie-area wildfire.

At about 6:30 p.m. Sunday, the plume was easily visible from the Second Street-Coltrane area in Edmond. Dry foliage, low humidity, temperatures in the 90s and fierce winds were fueling the fast-moving blaze. It started a couple of hours earlier east of Interstate 35 near Seward.

Large wildfires — the Guthrie-area fire burned about 3,250 acres — create their own unique weather, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Pyrocumulus clouds, large clouds fed by a fire, can form over a top of a blaze due to intense heat. They produce strong and gusty winds that can alter how a fire spreads, endangering both firefighters and the public.

Conner, initially assigned to help stop the head of the fire, was driving a Luther Fire Department brushpumper. He was accompanied by Firefighter AJ Morgan. Conner said at one point the fire was accompanied with an estimated 30-45 mph winds. The heat it generated made his steering wheel hot enough to where he had to wear gloves.

He described the blaze as a “crown fire.” Crowning occurs when fires move rapidly from surface fuels to aerial fuels and then spread as crown fires, according to NOAA. Conner said he saw trees burning from the top down. He lost track of how often the 300-gallon pumper was refilled.

All told more than 50 agencies would be involved in the battle, according to the Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management. Partners included Tinker Air Force Base and the Oklahoma Army National Guard, which supplied water-hauling Black Hawk helicopters.

At 4:39 p.m. Sunday, the Edmond Fire Department responded to a Woodcrest Fire Department request for assistance, said Edmond Fire Chief Jake Rhoades. Guthrie also asked Edmond to assist. City personnel were routinely rotated for three days; at one point Sunday 11 Edmond firefighting apparatuses were involved, Rhoades said.

On Monday, Edmond personnel and other agencies worked hot spots fanned by winds. Fresh Edmond crews headed out Monday night until the task force was able to get the fire under control, which occurred Tuesday evening.

Task force public information officer and Tulsa Fire Capt. Stan May, who worked with unified incident command, said an incident commander, often elected officials or representatives of utilities and corporations with a large stake in the outcome, is responsible for the overall direction of the response. The commander chooses an “operations chief” who assigns duties to the crews and deploys resources such as brushpumpers, bulldozers or aircraft.

Other personnel include planners who assess task force needs, the situation, risks and goals, personnel who track expenses, individuals who obtain needed personnel, equipment and supplies, a liaison officer who interacts with various stakeholders and an officer who is responsible for the safety of first responders and the public.

“Safety can override any decision, order or plan if it poses a significant safety hazard,” May said. “The situation must be dealt with before that part of the operation can be resumed.”

Guthrie Fire Chief Eric Harlow reported a 56-year-old male died when the fire overtook his home Sunday night. The Oklahoma State Health Department reported two civilians were transported to local hospitals for unspecified injuries. And EMSA reported more than 150 firefighters were treated for various issues and released. Oklahoma Medical Reserve Corps Stress Response volunteers were on site.

Edmond Fire Battalion Chief Shawn Horn, a 27-year veteran, was off duty when he was asked to assist in the command post. Horn said due to the advancing fire the post had to be moved before he arrived at about 6 p.m. Sunday.

Horn said the fire zone was divided initially into a north and south division; a third east division would be added. Edmond personnel were mostly assigned to the south division, but others worked the north, Horn said.

Early on, the focus was on the safety of firefighters and citizens and protecting property, Horn said. In a previous report, Guthrie Fire Chief Eric Harlow said 42 structures including homes, barns and outbuildings are confirmed destroyed. Damage assessment was continuing.

Horn said gathering information from the fire zone was a critical part of decision-making. Conner said he was sent out on a recon mission later Sunday night and watched the advancing fire from a hill top. Conner said plans were made to assault the fire in a nearby open field.

On Wednesday, Harlow said the fire command center had been terminated. Resources were being sent back to their service areas. Horn said at some point in the future personnel will evaluate the response.

marks@edmondsun.com | 341-2121, ext. 108

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