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Osage fire program director talks about ’14 fire season

Bobby Tallchief, Director of the Osage Nation’s Emergency Management and Wildland Fire Program says 2014 has been very busy.

“We responded to 121 fires from Jan. 1 through April 2014. That’s four times as many as last year,” Tallchief said. “This was busy compared to 2013. We had it easy that year.”

This season Tallchief and his crew were among those who responded to several large fires. “The biggest fire we fought this season was a 17,000 acre fire around April first. It stretched from west of the Hominy Prison all the way almost to GrayHorse to the Naval Reserve,” Tallchief said.

He described the way events unfolded: “The wind was terrible that day and there was just a lot of pasture land down there and it just took off. It took a good two days on that one. Fortunately, there were not a lot of structures endangered. We worked 16-hour shifts.”

For this fire responders included: Pershing, Pawhuska, Osage Hills, Hominy Ranchers, City of Hominy, Turner Ranch, Bueford Ranch, GrayHorse, Fairfax Fire Dept., Wynona, Barnsdall City and Barnsdall Rural Fire Depts., Tallchief said.

The Osage County Sheriff’s Department handles emergency dispatches fire responders for the county.

“We also worked with the Osage County Emergency Management. They’re a huge resource for us because they have the ability to pull other resources for us,” he added.

“We have access to the Eastern Oklahoma region of the BIA [Bureau of Indian Affairs]; they know every fire we go on. We tell their duty officer who is on duty 24-hrs a day and monitors fire activity. We let him know when we are responding to a fire. If the conditions, are such that the fire intensity is at a certain point or relative humidity or winds are at a certain point, they start sending us outside resources to help us,” Tallchief said.

When fire breaks out, other responders are often called. “We try to pull from the state first: Miami, Muscogee (Creek) Nation, Cherokee Nation. We pull from local responders while we gather help from other parts of the U.S. Usually when we’re busy, other parts of the U.S. are not and vice versa,” he said.

“It takes all of us. We go help them and they come help us. The area we’re responsible for is so huge that no one department can respond to it. Having a good relationship with all the departments is important.”

This fire season has lasted longer than usual Tallchief said.

“Generally, around April 15 our fire season ends, but we had a 704-acre fire on Friday [April 25], which started from someone burning trash. When the fires start there is no wind, but as the day wears on humidity changes, wind begins, things dry out and it just takes one spark from the trash barrel to start it up,” Tallchief said.

The amount of precipitation during the previous growing season impacts the next wildland fire season.

“We had a lot of dormant grass leftover from the last growing season because we had rain all the way up through August – which we never have. There’s just a lot of fuel out there. If we don’t get some moisture, our season will continue,” Tallchief said.

Tallchief manages a crew, consisting of three wildland firefighters, including himself, who are responsible for 130,000 acres of Osage Nation trust lands. This trust land is part of the 1.5 million acres which make up Osage County, he said.

In addition, “we have a part-time guy whose title is hazardous fuels technician. He can move hazardous fuel we find to lessen the impact of a fire coming through that area. It’s a six-month position. The other 6 months he’s on the fire crew,” Tallchief explained. “In addition to our guys, we have BIA volunteers, who come and man the trucks with us.”

“We have had three fire trucks since 2011, when we took over from the BIA. We were provided three from the BIA, which we inherited when we took over the program,” as part of a compacting agreement, Tallchief explained.

Describing the wildland fire season, Tallchief said: “In the Osage our season usually lasts until around April 15. Then it gets green. Then around Fourth of July fires pick up, and again in the fall when things dry out there are some fires. When we get rain in Sept. and Oct, it stops. After the frost, things go dormant for awhile. Then the cycle begins again in mid-December and certainly after the first of the year.”

For this fire season just concluded, crews, consisting of 2 or 3 firefighters each, come from out of state to help Tallchief’s crew.

“We had the Fort Apache crew in here from Arizona. The crews from the Flat Head reserve in Montana — the Texas Forestry Service, the Texas Parks and Recreation, Texas Fish and Wildlife. They all have fire crews. They come for a 14-day detail and then they send someone else to replace them. They stay in the Bartlesville area at hotels there. They work 12-hr shifts. Sometimes they work for 16 hours. But if so, they have to rest for 8 hours before they come back.”

In addition to wildland fires, the Osage Nation’s Emergency Management program responds to “any natural or manmade activity in the Osage Nation.”

With regard to the April 27 tornadoes in the Quapaw and Miami area, Tallchief said: “It started in Quapaw and then went right on to Baxter Springs, Kansas. That day down here we just had severe thunderstorm warnings, so the Osage Nation got through pretty easy.

“We’ve been in contact with the BIA in Miami, making sure that the tribes up there didn’t need any assistance. At this time they don’t. They made it through okay. ... We offered our assistance to any tribal members that needed anything,” Tallchief explained.

As the wildland fire season winds down, Tallchief said his program would shift its focus. The Osage Nation crew will be able to repay those who have helped them by lending a hand out of state.

“During our slow season we ship our guys to Colorado, Wyoming, California, Oregon.”

This has the added benefit of providing the Osage Nation crew with additional training. “They get to see other strategy and tactics used in other parts of the U.S. because they fight other kinds of fires,” Tallchief said.

During the slow season, Tallchief and his staff also work to educate and increase public awareness for the hazardous fuels mitigation program and the fire wise communities program, which promotes common-sense building and landscaping.

“We try to help people landscape and plan and give them a defensible space, so that if wildfire does come they’ll have a greater chance for the home to survive the wildfire,” Tallchief said.

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