High winds hampered crews Monday as they battled a second day of wildfires that destroyed homes, forced hundreds to evacuate and injured firefighters in parts of Oklahoma and Texas.
The strong northwesterly wind, with gusts up to 30 mph, was part of a huge storm system that also produced blizzard conditions on the central and northern Plains, the National Weather Service said.
“I’ve seen winds like this before but not when the fuel conditions were as dry as they are right now,” Duncan Assistant Fire Chief Bobby Beck said.
Oklahoma is well below its average rainfall for this time of year and the southeastern portion of the state is experiencing a record-setting drought.
Fires burned across 50,000 acres in 15 counties, Oklahoma Emergency Management spokeswoman Michelann Ooten said.
Oklahoma Gov. Brad Henry issued an emergency wildfire declaration for the state, clearing the way for officials to request federal assistance for fire damage if needed.
“There have been houses lost across the state, but we don't have an exact number,” she said. She also didn't have an exact number on how many people had been evacuated.
Five buildings, including homes, were destroyed by three fires that continued to burn Monday in McIntosh County in east-central Oklahoma, state Emergency Management spokeswoman Michelann Ooten said.
A shelter was set up at the Methodist Church in Chouteau, just east of Tulsa, where 18 homes were destroyed. A dozen more burned elsewhere in Mayes County.
In south-central Stephens County, fire destroyed 16 homes in the town of Velma, Ooten said.
Velma Fire Chief Bruce Lynn told The Oklahoman four firefighters suffered smoke inhalation fighting a fire and that some residents suffered burns.
A number of firefighters across the state also suffered minor injuries.
Most of the grass fires began Sunday as winds gusting to more than 60 mph raked the state. Power was restored Monday for most of the 40,000 customers left in the dark a day earlier.
The wind also fanned grass fires in at least six northern Texas counties on Sunday.
One Texas fire began west of Cleburne, about 30 miles south of Fort Worth, and spread north into neighboring Tarrant County, burning 1,000 acres and 24 structures along the way, Johnson County Sheriff's Department spokeswoman Cpl. Pam Jetsel said. She said the destroyed structures included six homes.