Weekend rain might cause reassessment of statewide ban on burning

Monday, March 20, 2006

OKLAHOMA CITY -- A slow-moving weekend storm system that has soaked Oklahoma with much-needed rain might cause state officials to reassess a statewide burn ban that has been in place for more than four months.

National Weather Service meteorologist Ken Gallant, based in Norman, said that as of mid-afternoon Sunday, Oklahoma City had received 1.73 inches of rain since the storm system began moving through the state Friday night.

Gallant said the system will continue to slowly move over the state today, with rain tapering off late in the day, starting in southwest portions of the state and progressing to the northeast.

Oklahoma City had not had rainfall of an inch or more since Oct. 31. Even with the rain from the current system, the state is running about two inches below normal for the year. That's in addition to low levels of rain in 2005, when the state ended the year about nine inches below normal.

"This is just the kind of short-term thing we needed," Gallant said. "If we can get more of this type of weather pattern it will help tremendously."

In eastern Oklahoma, Tulsa had received 2.05 inches of rain since Friday night, Tulsa NWS forecaster Rich Uber said.

Rainfall amounts in northeastern Oklahoma have ranged from about an inch in areas near the Kansas border to 3-5 inches in the southeastern corner of the state. McAlester received 1.37 inches of rain on Sunday, the weather service reported. Oklahoma has been in a drought since last year, when wildfires began occurring with regularity. Since Nov. 1, about 2,700 fires have consumed more than 555,000 acres in the state. Gov. Brad Henry issued the statewide outdoor burn ban on Nov. 11.

Dale Armstrong, a fire information officer at the state's incident command center in Shawnee, said that starting today, state forestry officials and fire behavior analysts will assess the moisture levels for each of the state's 77 counties.

They will make recommendations about whether to lift the burn ban on a county-by-county basis to state agriculture secretary Terry Peach. Peach will pass the recommendations on to Henry, who will make the final determination.

In the meantime, Armstrong said, firefighters who have battled the blazes are enjoying a break.

"They're also taking time to check equipment and do much-needed maintenance and make sure everything is operational and working," Armstrong said.

The storm system also helped efforts to battle a wildfire in the Ouachita National Forest in western Arkansas, near the Oklahoma border. That blaze, started by lightning on March 12, has charred more than 8,000 acres in the forest, which spans 1.8 million acres, reaching from central Arkansas to southeast Oklahoma.

Jim Burton, a fire team leader for the U.S. Forest Service in Oklahoma and Arkansas, said probably the only efforts needed once the rain ends will be precautionary work to make sure it is out and to extinguish any hot spots that remain.

He said that of 75 firefighters who battled the blaze on Saturday, 40 brought in from out-of-state had been sent back home -- to Washington state in the case of a 20-person team called the Northwest Regulars, and to Oklahoma in the case of a 20-person crew from the Iowa tribe of American Indians.

Gallant said that after the current system moves past Oklahoma, the next possibility of rain will be Wednesday into Thursday, "but there's only a slight chance with that. It doesn't look like a long-term rain."

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