Citing a new wave of wildfires, Oklahoma Gov. Brad Henry ordered a statewide burn ban Aug. 2 and warned that Oklahoma’s hot, windy and dry conditions show no sign of ending.
“There appears to be no relief in sight,” Henry said as he announced the ban on outdoor burning in all 77 counties.
Officials say the state is experiencing its worst drought in history and that most areas are experiencing high fire conditions. Even areas that recently received rain soon will be parched by triple-digit temperatures, according to agriculture officials.
More than 13,000 acres have burned in the last two weeks. In Oklahoma County alone, firefighters have battled 32 wildfires over the last 12 days.
“We felt the most prudent course of action was to institute a statewide burn ban,” he said. “The situation is very dangerous. It is extremely important that we err on the side of caution.”
Henry said law enforcement authorities will vigorously enforce the burn ban. Violations are misdemeanors punishable by a fine of up to $500 and one year in jail. Charcoal and gas grilling are exempt from the ban.
“It may cause a small inconvenience for some Oklahomans, but it will also help reduce the number of dangerous fires and possibly save lives in the process,” Henry said.
Investigators also will pursue people who deliberately start fires, including smokers who carelessly discard lit cigarettes, the governor said. Smoking material was blamed for many of the wildfires that scorched the state earlier this year.
“Many of those fires were started by people throwing cigarettes out of their cars,” the governor said.
Henry said the burn ban will remain in effect as long as conditions require it.
“The fire threat will not diminish until we have significant rainfall and cooler weather,” he said. “We will get through this just like we got through the last historic wildfire season.”
Henry said state firefighters have new resources to help them battle wildfires. Legislation he signed provided almost $9 million to help mostly volunteer fire departments pay the rising cost of fighting wildfires.
Among other things, the legislation doubles the size of annual operational grants available to fire departments, from about $2,800 to more than $5,100, and creates a $2 million fund to repair or replace fire equipment used by Oklahoma’s 874 certified volunteer fire departments.
Drought conditions have placed the state under some form of burn ban for seven of the last 10 months.
Henry imposed the last statewide burn ban in November in response to a severe drought that helped fuel more than 2,800 wildfires that burned about 560,000 acres since Nov. 1. President Bush issued a federal disaster declaration on Jan. 10.
Wildfires destroyed more than 300 homes and businesses and damaged 800 others, according to state forestry officials. At least three people were killed, including a volunteer firefighter.
The burn ban was finally lifted in May for the last 20 western Oklahoma counties.
Although no longer under a federal disaster declaration, officials have made Oklahoma farmers eligible for low-interest loans through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm Services Agency.
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