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Western Oklahoma wildfire recovery continues

Recovery from the Smokehouse Creek Fire continues. Western Oklahoma Extension agents provide an update on how the long process is going in their county.

Gail Ellis, Editorial Communications Coordinator

June 11, 2024

7 Min Read
wildfire
Wildfires are not new to western Oklahoma. This is the remains of a home burned during the 2018 34 Complex fire. Oklahoma residents are putting the pieces back together again following February's Smokehouse Creek fire. Shelley E. Huguley

The damage was heartbreaking when the Smokehouse Creek Fire tore through western Oklahoma, the Oklahoma Panhandle and Texas in late February. Livestock, forage, hay and fencing were destroyed, and it will take years for producers and their operations to bounce back.

Unfortunately, western Oklahoma is familiar with the threat and destruction of wildfire. Oklahoma State University Extension asked the Extension agriculture educators in Roger Mills, Ellis and Beaver counties to reflect upon the 2024 Smokehouse Creek Fire and other wildfire events that affected the land and its residents to discuss how OSU Extension supports wildfire recovery.

Danny Cook (Roger Mills)Dana Bay (Ellis) and Loren Sizelove (Beaver) partnered with county emergency management agencies, community groups and other disaster response organizations to offer logistics support during and after the wildfires. From organizing supply donations and running transport to providing information on livestock and forage needs, Extension educators connect with local producers to help them navigate some of the darkest moments of their lives.

Wildfire Q&A

It’s been three months since the wildfire. How are you all doing?

Danny Cook: We are doing fine; with wildfire and rain, we are recovering. I can’t express how much this wildfire has changed my view of heroes and what they do to help. They leave their homes, farms and work and head to the fire. Truckers and haulers moved things out of harm’s way. People stepped up with fuel cards for the haulers and those trying to get home after helping. We are blessed with a broadcaster, Jimmy Clark on 96.5 FM in Elk City, on farm radio who called for help from western Oklahoma producers. His message led many caravan trips and loads to our area and into Texas. Thank you to all the fire departments, county employees, Oklahoma Department of Wildlife members, and national grassland firefighters in western Oklahoma and the Texas Panhandle who have fought wildfires in the past decade.

Related:Wildfires: Western Oklahoma suffers significant loss

What phase of recovery are your county residents currently navigating?

Dana Bay: There are still a lot of fence repairs to do, miles and miles of it. Temporary fixes are still in place right now.

swfp-shelley-huguley-wildfire-fences-18.jpg

Cook: Rangeland is recovering. With time and rain, we should have cattle back on the pastures in late June. We have had a good cool season hay crop to start building back hay supplies.

Loren Sizelove: Fencing is the primary issue now. Finding help or labor is one of the main problems.

In your county, what did fires impact the most? Where do you personally see the most impact from the fire?

Related:Texas Panhandle: After the wildfires

Sizelove: Producers are more aware of the need for insurance for cattle, fences and forage.

How are producers who lost cattle navigating purchasing replacements when current cattle markets are so high?

Bay: Most are holding off on buying. They may not have the forage, pasture or fencing ready yet. A couple of people I know of lost a significant number of herd bulls and had to rapidly locate new bulls.

Compare the Smokehouse Creek Fire to the Rhea Fire and others from recent years. How were they different? How were they similar?

Cook: Roger Mills County has been involved in all the largest wildfires over the past few years: Amarillo Wildfire, Rhea Wildfire, Oklahoma Kansas Fire and Texas Smokehouse Fire.

The more wildfires we have had, the more it has prepared us for the next one. The Smokehouse Fire and other wildfires in northwest Oklahoma required and received the most help of all the wildfires. The key to this wildfire event was logistics involving the private sector, farm organizations, community and state leaders, and organizing professionals from various backgrounds. All the wildfires in our area have been fueled by cedar trees and rangeland that used to be farmland.

Related:Panhandle wildfires: 'I thought we were going to die'

What have you learned as an educator while supporting communities and residents during and after wildfire events?

Bay: Any time you have a natural disaster like this in rural areas, people come together. They support one another – it’s neighbors helping neighbors. People pour in from outside to help with donations of items, their time and labor. It always amazes me how people in the agriculture and farming communities are willing to step up.

Cook: The hardest thing to do is help a producer because they always think someone else needs the help worse. The older the farmer or rancher, the harder it is to help them because they think the younger one needs it more. 

In what ways has your county office supported wildfire victims?

Bay: We’re still here to provide information and education on how to handle cattle. We can provide rations if producers are trying to dry-lot cattle and feed them until they find a place to move them. We’re trying to educate as much as possible on government programs and what’s available. Also, it’s important to be a sounding board and a listening ear for producers. They know we care, and many of them know they can come to us with questions, concerns, or to simply let off steam.

If they have spent their life building a cattle herd affected by wildfire and then have to go out and put down some of those animals, it’s pretty tough. It can be really hard on someone. They may not think it affects them, but it catches up with them.

Do you have any other thoughts on your experience as an Extension educator experiencing wildfire recovery?

Cook: It is OK to take a moment and shed a tear or two when disaster happens, and it’s important to listen when wildfire victims want to talk. They are our volunteers, friends and families.

How does the experience help you prepare for future wildfire events?

Bay: Sometimes, we get set up for the perfect storm. If we have a good year in terms of rainfall and forage production the year before, we grow a lot of grass and have a lot of standing forage out there. That means you also have a lot of standing fuel load as we go throughout the winter and approach the spring. That’s what happened this year. We had a lot of standing forage that was just ripe and ready to burn.

We, as producers, need to be proactive and prepared by clearing things away and mowing around our barns and structures. If there is a fire, make a stand and block a fire from hitting your structures and homes. Have hoses and sprinklers on hand, and keep sprinklers running. Make a plan for livestock and pasture. Is there a place I can call my cows to that they would be safer? Where’s the closest wheat field where I can lead cattle? If you can take time when you’re not in an emergency to plan and evaluate pastures, it’s worth it.

Rural people are resilient and strong. Most of our producers will be back.

Cook: Every wildfire teaches you something – a case of bottled water, towels or a broom handle may save your home until help can arrive. Remove every western cedar or combustible plant near your home or escape route. Plastic stock tanks and solar systems are gone after wildfires. We need assistance funding for stock ponds and concrete galvanized stock tanks. We need hay to feed cattle and tube feeders for calves injured after a wildfire.

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About the Author(s)

Gail Ellis

Editorial Communications Coordinator, Oklahoma State University

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