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Firefighters battle fatigue along with raging flames

Updated:
OILTON, Okla. (AP) -- Burdened by heavy hoses, fatigue and the staggering knowledge that nothing but rain means relief, the volunteers of the Oilton Fire Department answered their first call Wednesday.

It came just as the day dawned clear and blue, before some firefighters who were kept late the night before fighting a blaze in nearby Shamrock had risen. After three straight days battling fires across acres and acres of dry grass, this time a garage was burning.

Fire Chief Brian Harmon said he thought "that just puts the icing on the cake" when he took the page, put off plans with his kids and headed out.

Trucks with water, hoses and men weary from hefting them to their backs again and again came from the nearby communities of Drumright and Yale and Jennings to help.

Some came with shifts still ahead of them at their full-time manufacturing jobs. Oilton's police chief came in his fire hat. Paul McDonald got the call on the way to his job doing code enforcement in Drumright.

He came despite having fought fires for 36 hours straight beginning Sunday.

"You go to bed thinking, `It's going to be another busy day tomorrow,"' sighed McDonald, who came voluntarily because he likes to think someone would be willing to do the same for his family.

The assorted band of brothers worked as a team; some aiming hoses, some refilling the tankers, others climbing to the rooftop where the flames flickered under the rafters and the char settled on their faces.

The fire moved from the garage to the house but, this time, not into the yellow grass, which hasn't seen rain in so long it crunches under foot.

The firefighters didn't need a forecast to see their enemies all around: gusty winds, low humidities and unseasonably warm and sunny skies.

"It's taking a toll on men and equipment," said George Hensley, who is the police chief but has spent much of his time lately being a firefighter. "I've lost count how many fires we've been on."

The big fire -- the one that broke out Sunday and scorched nearly 10,000 acres near Drumright -- before they had it under control Monday, sapped all of them. But Tuesday, they reunited in Shamrock as flames from a grass fire ignited a historic brick school building and winds sent embers dancing across the little Creek County town.

Assistant Drumright Fire Chief Loren Andrews said both blazes are suspicious. Both began just off of roadways in remote locations where electrical lines did not come into play, he said. And someone reported seeing a truck stop along the road and then dart away.

Local firefighters suspect arson, but the state fire marshal has not investigated the blazes, Andrews said.

Even a carelessly tossed cigarette butt could quickly ignite the parched grasses, he acknowledges. And so, even when they are not fighting fires, they are waiting to fight them.

"With the way the wind is blowing, you know it's going to happen, but you don't know exactly when or where," Andrews said. "Lord knows, we don't have much of our area left to burn."

Between Shamrock and Drumright, houses and oil tanks stood fringed by acres of blackened grass -- their unscathed presence testament to the firefighters' efforts.

A firefighting team from the Bureau of Indian Affairs spent Wednesday morning combing the smoldering woods near Shamrock to prevent simmering embers from raging into new fires.

Help also came Tuesday when one of two tanker planes brought into fight fires statewide swooped low several times near Shamrock and emptied its big belly of powdery red flame retardant.

They were still fighting the house fire outside Oilton when the call they had been expecting came.

Another grass fire had broken out. This one near Jennings.
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