Oklahoma Success Story: Paradise in the Pines
Oklahoma Forestry Services works to ensure the safety of cabin community vacationers
It was Labor Day weekend, and thousands of out-of-towners were descending on Hochatown, Oklahoma. The countless rental cabins nestled in the beautiful forests were going to come alive with campfires and barbeques for the last days of summer.
On Friday afternoon, as the highways were clogged with vacationers coming into the area, a wildfire caught on private timberland. It quickly spread to the surrounding subdivisions of rental cabins. The Oklahoma Forestry Service (OFS) immediately mobilized with the USDA Forest Service, private company foresters and local fire departments to arrive on the scene and contain the blaze. The firefighters prevented any structures from getting damaged, saving the holiday weekend for the 11,000-14,000 approaching tourists.
“It got close,” said Michelle Finch-Walker, Public Information Officer with OFS and a native of Hochatown who owns three-and-a-half cabins there. “There was good firefighting that day so that nothing was damaged and no one was hurt.”
Fires like the one on that Labor Day are what concern Don Cook, a forest ranger with OFS who focuses on fire suppression and protection in southeastern Oklahoma. The memory of the Gatlinburg fire around Thanksgiving 2016–where 16,000 acres in Tennessee’s Great Smoky Mountains burned, damaging or destroying 2,000 buildings and forcing at least 14,000 people to evacuate–is still fresh in his mind, and that’s a day OFS is trying to avoid.
In that effort, OFS is developing a Wildfire Response/Preparedness Plan for Hochatown. “The whole goal of the Preparedness Plan is to have a set of guidelines to reduce the confusion and chaos that happens in fire events so everyone knows their roles, knows what they need to be doing, and knows what to expect,” Cook said.
The plan leans on several partners to overcome the two main challenges to fire preparedness the area poses: location of the cabins, limited access and communicating with an ever-changing audience of tourists and absentee landlords. “I’ve said it from the beginning,” Cook reiterated, “this is a ‘we’ project, and not a ‘me’ project because when a big fire event happens, it’s going to take all of us working together to get everybody out and to keep everybody safe.”
Cook and the rest of the team at OFS have ongoing meetings with each of the partners – including private and forest industry landowners, police and fire departments in McCurtain County, local park rangers, the USDA Forest Service, and game wardens with the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife. These partners work together to find solutions related to limited road access, notifications of hazardous situations and evacuation of renters.
One of the most impactful pieces of that cooperation is the Collector for ArcGIS app, a platform shared among all the partners designed to keep up-to-date maps of the areas and provide useful information in the event of a fire. The main benefit of the tool is that first responders can see which structures are residences and which are rental cabins, where the nearest water source is, where the designated staging areas are, and more. Cook calls the tool a game changer. “It would be hard for me to imagine this project being where it’s at today without it.”
OFS has also had to educate the public about being smart and safe with fire, but it has been a challenge. The number of rental cabins in the Hochatown area has grown from around 500 ten years ago to at least 1,500 or more. Today, about 80 percent of the structures are weekend rental cabins, and they’re spread out over roughly 20,000-25,000 acres.
“We’ve reached out to the homeowners with information about meetings we’ve held and how they can take action to minimize their fire risk,” said Finch-Walker. “It’s tough to engage when most of them live away and are rarely in Hochatown.” And there’s always a new audience of tourists from the major urban areas–Oklahoma City, Dallas, Fort Worth, and Tulsa–who may not know the risks of wildfire.
To prepare for the many changing variables in the area, OFS and the many partners in the Hochatown Preparedness Plan are planning simulations to practice and refine different scenarios to mobilize response forces effectively. Each simulation will allow the partners to identify areas where they can improve response time and efficiency. “My advice to others would be to communicate, communicate, communicate–talk to each other, work with each other, and train with each other. It’s a ‘we’ job we’re doing,” Cook said.
Thinking about a Gatlinburg-type event raises Finch-Walker’s anxiety levels. But she says the cooperation and infrastructure set up and developed through the Hochatown Preparedness Plan definitely moves the area in the right direction.