Oklahoma wildfires prompt burn ban

Brian Daffron
1/18/06

ANADARKO, Okla. -- Oklahoma's seasons many times revolve around hot
summers, icy winters and a tornado-ridden springtime. But with the winter
season of 2005 -- '06, a lack of significant moisture -- combined with high
winds -- have created a tinderbox ready to ignite at any given moment.

Since Nov. 1, more than 363,000 acres, 220 structures and four deaths have
been attributed to these wildfires as of press time, according to Oklahoman
newspaper reports, with many of them occurring on Indian trust lands within
such areas as the Chickasaw, Choctaw, Muskogee Creek and Seminole tribal
jurisdictions, as well as more densely populated areas like Oklahoma City
and Edmond, Okla.

The amount of destruction caused by wildfires culminated in a Dec. 30
declaration of emergency by Gov. Brad Henry, a statewide burn ban for all
77 Oklahoma counties, and a call by both Henry and Lt. Gov. Mary Fallin to
ask everyone to pray for rain.

The burn ban, issued by Henry, includes a restriction against charcoal
grilling and campfires, and establishes restrictions and guidelines for
outdoor welding. Penalties for violating the ban are a $500 fine and one
year in jail, as well as the potential for violators to be held liable for
fire damage.

In Caddo County -- part of the jurisdictions of the Kiowa, Comanche,
Apache, Ft. Sill Apache, Caddo, Wichita and Delaware tribes -- was
18-year-old Justin Wilkerson, who was arrested by Anadarko Police on New
Year's Day. The arrests were made in connection with the setting of one
house fire and three grass fires, according to Oklahoman reports.

Federal response to these wildfires has been limited to investigations made
by Federal Office of Emergency Management officials, and as of press time
no federal disaster declaration has been made. However, relief and
assistance for both full-time and volunteer Oklahoma firefighters has come
from such sources as the Oklahoma National Guard aviation units, who since
Nov. 2 have dropped more than 519,000 gallons of water to douse these
flames, using Blackhawk and Chinook helicopters.

Firefighting assistance has also arrived from North Carolina, Alabama and
Tennessee, in addition to BIA firefighters from within Oklahoma and other
parts of Indian country, providing extra manpower, fire pumpers and
bulldozers. The BIA has also extended to Oklahoma the use of Single Engine
Air Tankers for fire extinguishing. Many of these firefighters have pledged
to stay in Oklahoma until an adequate rain arrives.

Assistance to those people who have lost their homes includes offers by the
Creek Nation to set up modular homes and clean up home foundations so that
tribal members who have lost their homes can begin to rebuild.

Since November, there have been many stories about the people who have
fought these fires, with outcomes ranging from heroic to tragic. One of
these stories centers on the extended family of Clarence Yarholar of the
Creek Tribal Town of Thlopthlocco. On Nov. 27 Clarence and his wife, Nell,
drove from their home in Shawnee to see the Okemah, Okla., area blanketed
in smoke. At 9 p.m., Yarholar joined nine other friends and family members
to save his sister and brother-in-law's home, along with his parents'
former home, fighting 10-foot flames and 20- to 25-mile-per-hour winds on
their 180-acre property, armed with nothing but rakes and shovels along a
fire line that stretched 10 miles.

"The flames would just whip at me," Yarholar said. "The wind would just
change direction in an instant."

By midnight, Nov. 28, the small crew was assisted by Creek Nation
firefighters and other crews who took over and finished putting out the
flames on the rest of the property. An effort was also made to save a
vacant house owned by the Scott family of Okemah, but was unsuccessful.

Events turned deadly Dec. 29 when 69-year-old Seminole tribal member Kelly
Tiger Sr. died of a heart attack while trying to save his house near
Holdenville. Tiger was covered with burns by the time firefighters found
his body.

"Find resources to help them rebuild," Yarholar said, referring to those
who lost their homes in these fires. "Find some kind of clothing
assistance. They lost everything. They need the very basics. I think it
would be good to set up an emergency escrow for these reasons."

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