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Fire crews gain ground on wildfire containment as mild winds, reinforcements bolster efforts

WOODWARD, Okla. - Milder winds and firefighter reinforcements greeted the Northwestern part of the state after wildfires scorched hundreds of thousands of acres in Oklahoma, Kansas and Texas over the past two days.

More than 800,000 acres have burned in three separate wildfires in portions of Harper, Beaver and Woodward counties since Monday night.

As of Wednesday evening, the Oklahoma Forestry Service says ten percent of the wildfires are considered contained.

“The equivalent of that — the land area of Oklahoma City, Tulsa and Enid, for example, combined, just to get the scope of it,” said Woodward County Emergency Management Director Matt Lehenbauer. "It’s been tough because the fire’s been — we have had some fires spread, the changing dynamics of this fire.”

With the fire danger at a critical level through the week, Lehenbauer and many others in the region were expecting Wednesday to be another slog of a fight Wednesday.

One of those was Ray Cambron, a firefighter from Pond Creek, one of several fire departments that made up the Grant County task force.

“We were over here the other day, we were just north of Buffalo a little ways, it was pretty bad over there,” Cambron said during a stop at the Woodward County fairgrounds, the staging area for the area’s incident command.

“It was like a tornado site on one side,” he said. “You’d see high line wires down, and just total destruction. And on the other side of the road it might just be perfectly fine.”

Contain and control the line

Shortly after noon, the Grant County teams set out to southeastern Harper County, the location of the Selman fire which, according to the Oklahoma Emergency Management, has scorched more than 47,000 acres.

“Things are looking really good over here. I know that,” said Brian Ryles, a Forest Ranger with the Oklahoma Forestry Service.

Coordinating with the Grant County teams, Ryles set them loose on the terrain full of deep ravines and coursing valleys to cut back brush and trees from the fire control line dug into black, scorched grass and red earth.

“Theres a bunch of hot stuff underneath them cedar trees, and with humidity dropping and wind picking up, it will ignite them cedars and it’s off to the races again," Ryles said.

Armed with fire hoses and axes, the handful of firefighters made their way down the steep cliff towards a smoldering cedar tree to knock it down, directed under the watchful eye of Max Hess, a Grant County commissioner, former fire fighter and emergency management director.

“That’s what they’re trying to do right now is work their way down in there. You can see that’s probably a 100, 130 feet down there,” said Hess. “So they work their way down there and work their way in there to see if they can get that under control.”

Not long after pulling the hotspot apart and dispatching the smoldering cedar with a blast of water, a cedar several hundred yards behind the group — in another valley — burst into flames.

Just an indication of the type of battle the crew — and many others — would be waging throughout the day; dealing with hotspots and hoping a larger fire doesn’t spark again.

Damage estimates difficult to come by

“We do know there have been several homes destroyed,” said Lehenbauer. “Probably a number of those lived-in structures, as well as barns, so numbers we just don’t know yet.”

Lehenbauer says fires, or the threat of fires, have been derailing attempts at doing damage estimates. He expects damage estimates to start by later this week, if not the weekend, that is if more fires don’t spark up.

As far as cattle losses, Lehenbaur says they number in the hundreds, if not thousands.

The Oklahoma Farm Bureau released a statement regarding the wildfires saying:

“Our hearts go out to the Oklahomans and others who have been affected by this serious wildfire situation,” said Tom Buchanan, Oklahoma Farm Bureau president. “We must stand by the farmers, ranchers, and rural residents who have experienced serious threats to their homes and livelihoods. These are the good people providing our food, fiber and fuel every day, and today our neighbors in northwest Oklahoma need us to band together with them.”

If you would like to donate hay or trucking services for hay, you can do so by contacting either the Harper County Extension Office at 580-735-2252 or Buffalo Feeders at 580-727-5530 to make arrangements or provide trucking services.

Western Equipment is also accepting hay donations for animals in need.

They are located at 3999 Lakeview Dr. in Woodward, Oklahoma.

Food, shelter, support

Wednesday afternoon, members of the Salvation Army and Red Cross were prepping meals at the incident command center, to deliver to firefighters scattered throughout the area later that afternoon.

“We come in with a smiling face, which is always nice,” said Maj. Ernie Hull with the Salvation Army. “But what they need the most is the nourishment and the hydration.”

The Salvation Army, Southern Baptist Men and Red Cross partnered to provide food and hydration for first responders throughout the region.

A forestry service public information officer on the scene of the fires says an incident management team from the federal Southern Area Coordinating Group, will be rotating in by Thursday to help provide logistical support for local, county and state resources.

For those who would like to make other donations toward the wildfire relief efforts, click here.