Sunshine in store for Memorial Day weekend

Fire crews continue to fight wildfires throughout the night in northwestern Oklahoma

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BUFFALO, Okla. - Firefighters will work throughout the night and into the morning, battling scattered wildfires throughout the northwestern corner of Oklahoma.

Emergency management officials say the goal is to try and control and contain the fires that continue to pop up across the area.

“A lot of problems now are that we are having issues with flareups in west-central and western Harper County,” said Matt Lehenbauer, Woodward County’s emergency management director Tuesday evening.

Early on Tuesday, Lehenbauer and other emergency managers were struggling to direct what was limited resources, at times, to battle the scattered wildfires across the three county area since the fires started Monday.

“We have a couple of helicopters dropping water on the fires south of Buffalo,” said Harper County Emergency Management Director Dale Spradlin late Tuesday afternoon. “Fire task forces (that arrived late Tuesday) are helping us get some of them under control. But we are having trouble getting resources, water to them.”

Since the fires started, it’s estimated between 200,000 and 300,000 acres have burned in the three counties near the Kansas state line, according to the state.

Late Tuesday, Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin declared a state of emergency for the 22 counties at risk of, or currently dealing with, wildfires in the critical fire conditions.

Those conditions are expected to continue through the week.

Closed roads leave drivers, residents stranded and wondering

Early Tuesday afternoon, smoke filled the air along northbound US 183 between Ft. Supply and Buffalo for nearly as far as you could see.

The wind farms dotting the horizon popped in and out of sight as the air took on an eery amber hue, colored by the gray smoke mixing with the sun’s rays.

As the fire blazed in the distance west of 183, the dry grass and strong westerly winds caused the fire to crawl rapidly closer.

Eventually, the fire reached the roadway causing the Oklahoma Dept. of Transportation to close the highway between Ft. Supply and the Kansas state line.

“It looked like hell,” said Brian Bowles of the fires coursing through the ditches and valleys south of town the night before.

Sitting behind the wheel of his pickup truck during a quick stop from putting out fires — both the literal and figurative kind the town administrator is used to — the fatigue in his voice from the previous night was palpable.

“We’re okay,” Bowles said. “It was quite a mess last night. Trying to figure out everything. We’ll get along.”

For hours, southbound 183 traffic south from Buffalo was halted by a gatekeeper of sorts, allowing fire vehicles and land owners through, but turning thru traffic away.

But about six miles south, truck driver Jaciel Bernot of Ft. Worth, Texas sat in longhaul trucker purgatory since early Tuesday morning, his Salt Lake City to San Antonio route confounded by the fires.

“How long have you been stuck here for?” I asked him.

“I’ve been here (since) about ten hours ago.”

Since, he has watched brush pumpers, tenders and others driving off to fight the fires pass by.

“I think they’re trying to do the best they can do, keeping the people away from the fire, and that’s what they can do,” Bernot said.

Having been stopped by snow, ice and storms, the trucker — hauling 77,000 pounds of meat in his cold storage tractor trailer — has never been stopped by fire. Now, he just has to “wait it out.”

You can go home, but what if you can’t stay here

If you were to go by the Buffalo Fire Department station on U.S. 64 in the sleepy downtown of Buffalo Tuesday afternoon, you would find it empty, save for water, food and supplies being dropped off for the weary firefighters that would sporadically stop by.

In talking with some of the town’s residents stopping to drop off supplies, they too had the same sense of fatigue as Bowles. And one question they had was, “If an evacuation order were to be given for the town, where would they go?”

Wishing for their donations to be the only item of record in this reporter’s notebook, I posed that question to Bowles.

“How? There’s nowhere to run. And there’s plenty of grass left to burn,” he said.

The signs are there — the smell of smoke hangs in the air. The occasional bits of ash coming to rest on car as a reminder that the fires are not far away.

An inescapable sign and an almost inescapable feeling.

“So we’re just crossing our fingers and hoping for the best.”