The task force offered much-needed help to the weary local firefighters who had been fighting exhaustion.

OKLAHOMA - The fury and intensity of an Oklahoma wildfire is powerfully destructive. Strong wild winds sweeping the state fanned flames driving the ominous Rhea and 34 Complex Fires scorching thousands of acres of earth, and destroying everything in its path.

Local firefighters from the Quapaw Tribe, Commerce, Peoria, Fairland, Wyandotte, Grove, Miami and Bernice agencies assisted with the wildfires during their most intense stages. The 34 Complex Fire was 100 percent contained by Tuesday, April 24 after a massive statewide firefighting response and much-needed rains of one and a half inches of rainfall on Friday and Saturday helped squelch the fires.

“We took a task force from Ottawa and Delaware counties,” Quapaw Tribe Fire/EMS Chief Jeff Reeves said. “At one point we had 22 firefighters. What we would do is let the guys work three or four days and then send out a relief crew, and go back and forth. Two or three days of that is all you need, three days is a lot. We were first assigned to the 34 Complex Fire.”

Reeves said the Ottawa and Delaware county firefighters assistance was greatly in need as the western Oklahoma area firefighters were exhausted from their days and days of efforts.

“This was our fourth trip to that area to help out as a task force and conditions out there were the worst this time than anything we’d ever seen on previous trips,” Reeves said. “They were in extreme drought, and in the afternoon the winds blew 50 miles per hour, and that’s not gusts, that’s just blowing 50 miles per hour steady. I’ve never seen anything quite like that. There were rates of spread of 500 to 600 feet per minute.”

Reeves said the devastation was mind blowing even to him as someone who has been a firefighter for years and years.

“They did a great job initially. The area’s a real diverse area, there’s a lot of area that’s like rolling dunes, and then there’s a lot of areas that are big, giant ravines,” he said. “The terrain is terribly hard on everything, the equipment, it wears down, it breaks down, it gets stuck, with the wind it was just very, very difficult. Of course, you put local resources in that situation for two or three days I don’t care who you are it taxes you, plus you’ve got the exhaustion factor. You just can’t continue to do it. What we saw was everything was destroyed and it was black.”

Reeves said the fires were extremely dangerous due to the exceptionally high rate of spread.

“We were told in every briefing every morning for the region when they assigned us for the day and the last thing that was said was, ‘Do not get ahead of this fire. The rates of spread are too bad. Flank the fire.' Which flank means we fight the fire from the back, you can’t get ahead of it, because you can’t outrun it.”

The task force offered much-needed help to the weary local firefighters who had been fighting exhaustion.

“We went Friday morning and they wanted us there at 9 o’clock, and we left at 4 a.m., and they were on the fire line by 10 a.m. They were in a bind. They were all across just worn out,” Reeves said. “Their local resources were done, so they called in task forces. By the time we got back there Sunday the Ottawa and Delaware County taskforce was the only one left, everyone else had gone.”

The Ottawa and Delaware County task force was reassigned on Wednesday, April 18 to the Rhea Fire to the south and released Thursday, April 19 in the afternoon as rainy weather approached.

The Oklahoma Forestry Service (OFS) said one inch of rain equals 27,154 gallons of water per acre. The 34 Complex Fire was 62,481 acres in size and therefore approximately 1.7 billion gallons of rainwater fell on the fire in those two days.

The Rhea fire’s current containment as of Wednesday, April 25 was listed at is 99 percent and estimated as 286,196 acres, according to OFS.

OFS's April 25 news release states, “As weather and road conditions allow, crews will mop up the few remaining segments of uncontained fireline, repair areas and property affected by fire-suppression activity, and backhaul excess equipment and supplies. No aircraft are assigned to the fire, although they are available by request if needed. Firefighters, equipment, and support personnel are being demobed (demobilized) over the next few days as the Southern States Incident Management Team prepares to return management of the incident to Oklahoma Forestry Services and the Bureau of Indian Affairs at the end of the week. There are currently 190 personnel assigned to the fire, and Oklahoma National Guard continues to assist.”

Nearly uncontrollable, these wildfires took the lives of cattle, other livestock, wildlife, and annihilated grazing land and burned homes and barns to the ground in the Rhea and 34 Complex Fires in Dewey and Woodward counties.

Lives have been devastated and lost with the deaths of a 61-year-old Leedey man and a woman who died in her vehicle near Seiling.

According to the Oklahoma State Health Department, numerous injuries were reported by area hospitals from smoke inhalation and heat-related injuries.

The Red Cross established shelters in response providing food to the displaced.

Reeves said he is proud of each of the firefighters who helped for their service, and also their families and agencies for supporting the firefighters during their absence.

“Things at home don’t quit, and we have to maintain our structure here as well,” Reeves said. “Our guys were all over it and wanted to go help, that’s what we do, that’s what firefighting is all about, helping people.”

Melinda Stotts is the associate editor of the Miami News-Record. She can be emailed at mstotts@miaminewsrecord.com or followed on Twitter @MelindaStotts1.