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Exhausted Jackson County firefighters keeping watch on burning cotton bales

ALTUS  Tuesday offered a queasy reprieve for over-stressed firefighters in Jackson County, but the day's forecast of historic fire danger hung heavy overhead.

When asked if there had been any firefights by mid-afternoon, a worn-out Jackson County Emergency Management Director Erik Mowbray quickly replied: "Don't jinx it."

Since Friday, the 11 county fire departments and the Altus Air Force Base Fire Prevention Services have been fire hopping from firefight to firefight. The City of Altus and the Air Base departments are the only paid departments, Mowbray said; the others are all-volunteer.

"It feels like a week (of firefights)," Mowbray said. "We're all exhausted. Fatigue is starting to set in."

Altus firefighters were at the Co-op 6 miles east of town Tuesday, trying to contain the smoldering mountains of burned cotton seed. The fire began Friday and has continued its burn into this week.

"We're trying to put water on it to contain the smoke but we don't have a good answer on that," Mowbray said. "Cotton's hard to fight."

Stored cotton seed caught fire Friday and about $20 million in cotton seed and more than $90,000 in equipment were destroyed. Its cause hasn't been determined.

Gins are pretty volatile places for an errant flame. Gin drying system heaters use natural gas, propane, butane, and propane-butane mixtures for fuel and are considered hazardous and volatile, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Cotton is absorbent so water that may soak into the outer portion of cotton seed may not reach its smoldering interior.

Mowbray said at the same time Friday that the Co-op firefight was raging, two other grass fires kicked up. It ran firefighters and equipment ragged, he said.

While firefighters continued working the Coop fire Saturday, fire sparked up north and west of Altus in the town of Martha. Over the course of the battle, the town's roughly 160 inhabitants were evacuated as a multi-county mutual aid response brought in a contingent of southwest Oklahoma fire departments, as well as the Oklahoma Forestry Service's Suppression Group of four bulldozers and eight Type 6 fire engines.

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