Fires scorch Texas, Okla. towns like a 'war zone'
Blazes seriously injure 2 people, destroy homes, force evacuations
The Associated Press, April 10, 2009
MIDWEST CITY, Okla. - Fire crews in Oklahoma and Texas raced Thursday to control wind-whipped wildfires that destroyed dozens of homes, seriously injured two people, forced evacuations and shut down parts of a major highway.
Howling wind that had gusted to more than 60 mph grounded firefighting efforts by air in both states and drove blazes that scorched neighborhoods like "a war zone," Midwest City police Chief Brandon Clabes said.
"The wind is the biggest issue, because we can't get ahead of the fires," Midwest City Fire Marshal Jerry Lojka said. By nightfall, wind gusts dropped to about 30 mph in many areas.
Oklahoma County Sheriff John Wetsel said an estimated 100 homes or other structures were damaged or destroyed in the northeast part of the county, which includes Midwest City.
Clabes said 20 homes were destroyed in one neighborhood alone. He described burned-out housing tracts, blackened vehicles and a fire that erupted at a broken natural gas line.
Two small towns in Texas also were devastated by wildfires. Sunset and Stoneburg in Montague County were left in a heap of debris and ashes after several dozen homes were destroyed. Television news footage showed burning houses and oil tanks and the charred remnants of buildings. No injuries were immediately reported.
The Oklahoma Department of Health reported 34 injuries related to the fires across that state. A firefighter battling a blaze in Lincoln County was hospitalized in stable condition with major burns and someone was severely injured after losing control of a vehicle on a smoke-covered road in Stephens County, officials said.
Two firefighters were treated for exhaustion, and two others were treated for smoke inhalation.
Crews already helping with blazes were being redirected because "there are fires everywhere," Chandler Emergency Management Director Larry Hicks said.
"We've got fires breaking out where they've already been put out," he said.
In Midwest City, some residents in the eastern part of the city of about 54,000 were told to head to a community center. The Lincoln County town of Sparks, which has about 150 residents, was also told to evacuate because of a large wildfire.
The National Weather Service, at the request of local authorities, relayed emergency evacuation orders over weather radios, which residents in this tornado-prone area are used to monitoring. The orders were also broadcast on television and radio. In some cases, authorities went door to door to warn residents.
Tricia Smith, who left her home in Midwest City, said the fire engulfed parts of her neighborhood.
"We thought we were safe, but in 30 minutes the fire went everywhere," she said.
Most of the state was under high wind warnings and red flag warnings, which indicate extreme fire danger, and the eastern half of the state was under a tornado watch.
Near Lindsay, about 55 miles south of Oklahoma City, 13 homes were destroyed, said Eric Johnson, Purcell's city manager. At least six homes and one church burned to the ground in Carter County and the number of destroyed properties was expected to rise, said Chester Agan, county assistant emergency management director.
"Our thoughts and prayers are with all of the Oklahomans who have been impacted by the wildfires and severe weather tonight," Gov. Brad Henry said in a statement. "When daylight breaks tomorrow, we will be able to better assess damages and determine our next step in helping people recover and rebuild."
Interstate 35, the state's main north-south highway, was closed in Carter County as well as in Payne County, where at least 12 agencies were battling a blaze estimated at five to six miles wide, said Kirk Mittlestet, emergency management director for Stillwater.
Wind-whipped grass fires in western Oklahoma also closed State Highway 152.
The fires that swept through Sunset and Stoneburg in Texas were among several totaling nearly 40 square miles that led to the evacuation of several towns northwest of Fort Worth, including Montague, Saint Jo and Bowie. Earlier in the day, a Bowie elementary school was evacuated, as were an intermediate school and a high school in Clyde in Callahan County.
Firefighters were battling a nearly 8-square-mile wildfire in Wichita County near Electra that destroyed an agriculture company's buildings and warehouses, authorities said. Thick, black smoke from burning debris caused authorities to shut down part of State Highway 287 for several hours.
"The smoke was so heavy that you couldn't see, and it was pretty intense for a little while," Wichita County Sheriff David Duke said. "At one point in the county we had 10 fires burning, and we were going from one to the other."
Authorities evacuated about 800 residents and a nursing home in Electra, but they were allowed to return home by evening as the fire was contained, Duke said. Several buildings in other parts of the county also were destroyed, he said.
Crews were fighting a 6-square-mile fire that destroyed three homes in Archer County, east of Archer City, about 90 miles northwest of Fort Worth. To the south, residents near Breckenridge in Stephens County were evacuated when a nearly 5-square-mile fire threatened an apartment complex, the Texas Forest Service said.
A fire at Lake Mineral Wells State Park destroyed one home, Parker County spokesman Joel Kertok said. He said another blaze in several Hudson Oaks subdivisions that destroyed four structures was 90 percent contained, and residents who had been evacuated were allowed to return home.
In Brown County, firefighters were battling a blaze near Bangs that destroyed one home and threatened three dozen more.
Blazes also were burning in parts of Eastland, Hamilton, San Saba, Jones, Palo Pinto, Hood, Cooke, Young and Jack counties, the Texas Forest Service said.
More than 93 percent of Texas is under some stage of drought, according to a U.S. Drought Monitor map released Thursday.
Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.