Continued drought taking toll on wildlife refuge

INDIAHOMA, OK (KSWO) - Most of southwest Oklahoma is now under severe or extreme drought conditions.

Because of the dry conditions, officials at the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge are urging everyone to be extra cautious when spending time out on the refuge.

Assistant Fire Management Officer Jeremiah Phillips said the longer the drought goes on, the higher the fire danger is on the refuge.

"Right now our fire danger is very high, not to the extreme level yet, but we are trending in that direction. Until we see a significant change in the weather pattern, we're just going to continue to get worse and worse," Phillips said.

Because of that danger, there are a few new restrictions in place for those visiting the refuge.

"We've restricted activities such that open burning and campfires are no longer allowed and we'll keep those in place for the duration of the burn ban or until we see a significant change in the weather pattern. Right now, there's really no such thing as an overabundance of caution, you can't be too careful," Phillips said.

When you couple the dry grass with the high winds we see in Oklahoma, Phillips said a fire can quickly get out of control, endangering all of the wildlife on the refuge.

"I feel safe in referring to the fire growth potential as explosive," Phillips said. "All of our animals out here are restricted and are in a confined space. We don't have the luxury of just allowing them to wander out onto neighboring properties. So, in the event of a fire, there's just that much less food and forage for the animals we do have."

Phillips said rain is desperately needed as we begin to head into the spring, not just to reduce that fire danger but to ensure the animals have something to eat in a few months.

"If the drought conditions continue into the spring, what would be a normal growing season and green up period then returning vegetation will be getting drought stressed, it won't grow like it normally would. The vegetation will dry out, it won't grow as readily which reduces the amount of food for the animals we're here to protect," Phillips said.

Phillips said so far, they haven't seen too many fires on the refuge and he hopes it stays that way. But if it doesn't, he said they will have the ability to call on departments from around the country to come help keep things under control, much like we saw departments traveling to California and the Northeast last year to help with fires there.

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