Oh, the places they’ll go in Osage County

Fires in hard-to-reach areas of northeast Oklahoma no match for Osage Nation’s UTV fleet

Hot, dry summers have led to devastating fires in California, British Columbia, and Australia in recent years. But in Osage County in northeast Oklahoma, the climate and grasslands induce fires to rage in the winter months, from October to May.

It’s because of the fuel source, explains Ross Walker, a director and fire management officer with the Osage Nation Wildland Fire Management team, based in Pawhuska, the county seat.

“The type of fuels we have—open grassland and prairie hardwood timber—have a lot of live-fuel moisture to them, so they don’t burn well in the summer,” he explains. “But in the winter, the fuels become dormant and lose their moisture, so they’re readily ignitable, and wildfires can spread rapidly.”

Walker, along with five full-time colleagues and a crew of emergency on-call firefighters, responds to wildland fires on around 200,000 acres of Native American land throughout Osage County’s 1.4-million acres.

Because those 200,000 acres are not continuous, Walker and the team will also step in to suppress fires on nearby lands if the flames threaten to spread to the wildland under their watch.

In addition to inducing winter fires, the grassland landscape causes another problem for Osage Nation Wildland Fire Management: it impedes the fire suppression crew’s ability to reach the fires.

Regular fire engines can’t always traverse the grassland and rocky terrain, Walker says. The team needs specialty equipment.

“We have one UTV, and we use the heck out of it,” he remarks. “The places it goes that a fire engine can’t! It’s way more manoeuvrable and efficient in Osage County.”

Walker’s team will soon have two additional UTVs, thanks in part to a $53,300 Safe Community grant from Enbridge. The funding will also help outfit the vehicles with skid units to transport water and fight fires anywhere—through tall grass, atop rocky landscapes, across rolling prairie hills, and over terrain thick with leaf litter.

“We can use UTVs in the early stages of the fire, during our initial attack when the fire is actively burning and running. And, we can utilize them at the end stages when control and containment’s been done,” Walker explains.

The UTVs will help Walker and his team become more efficient when suppressing wildland fires in hard-to-reach areas, and by extension, they’ll help keep the firefighters and the community safe.

“Sometimes an engine can’t reach the fire,” Walker says. “But UTVs can.”

(TOP PHOTO: One of the Osage Nation Wildland Fire Management team's two UTVs that Enbridge helped to purchase in summer 2021. UTVs help firefighters over grassland and rocky terrain, where fire engines can't venture.)