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3 die in wildfires, dozens of homes burned

Firefighters mopped up hot spots Friday from wind-driven wildfires in Oklahoma and Texas that killed three people, destroyed dozens of homes and forced hundreds of evacuations.
Image: Nathan Christmon, left, surveys the damage to his home in Midwest City, Okla
Nathan Christmon surveys the damage to his home in Midwest City, Okla., on Friday as firefighter Reese Morrison tells his brother, Drew Christmon, that they must leave the home until it has been declared safe. Sue Ogrocki / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Firefighters mopped up hot spots Friday from wind-driven wildfires in Oklahoma and Texas that killed three people, destroyed more than 100 homes, forced hundreds of evacuations and shut down parts of a major highway.

A blaze that destroyed more than 50 homes in the Oklahoma City suburb of Midwest City was probably sparked by youths seen at an abandoned camper just before the fire, Midwest City Fire Marshal Mike Lojka said Friday.

Authorities have not been able to identify the suspects.

That fire began Thursday afternoon along Interstate 35, the main north-south highway through the central part of the state. It sparked other fires that continued to burn past nightfall, fueled by ferocious winds and an abundance of dry, early spring grass and brush.

"We have in excess of 100 homes that have been destroyed statewide," Emergency Management Director Albert Ashwood said Friday morning.

"Anytime you have high winds and low humidity it's just the perfect storm for wildfires, and that's what's happening here," Ashwood said.

Residents who were evacuated while the fires raged were allowed to return home. For Sammetra Christmon of Midwest City, Okla., there was only a blackened, smoking ruin where her home had been.

"The memories, the photos, this is the house I have worked all my life for," she said Friday as she and her family picked through the smoldering debris. Her 9-year-old daughter was taking it hard.

"She's devastated, just in tears this morning," Christmon said. "This is the only house she's ever known."

Interstate 35 was back open Friday after being closed for several hours in various locations because of the fires.

Water-dropping helicopters couldn't assist the ground effort because of winds that gusted to more than 60 mph in some areas on Thursday.

Couple dead, son hospitalizedIn Texas, family members of former WFAA-TV reporter Matt Quinn and his wife, Cathy, told the station the couple was killed and their son was injured when a fire overtook their home about five miles from Montague, which is about 80 miles northwest of Dallas. The son was treated for burns at Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas and was in fair condition, the station reported.

Another woman died, possibly from a heart attack, after calling for an ambulance Thursday in a fire near Bowie on Thursday.

Firefighters were still battling more than 20 major fires burning across 60,000 acres on Friday, a day after 100,000 acres burned and the small towns of Stoneburg and Sunset in Montague County northwest of Fort Worth were destroyed, according to a statement from Texas Governor Rick Perry.

Television news footage showed burning houses and oil tanks and the charred remnants of buildings.

Weather conditions improved after nightfall, but winds weren't expected to diminish substantially until Friday afternoon.

"As far as winds are concerned, we're quite a bit weaker than on Thursday," said Scott Curl, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service. "We're seeing behind the cold front that's working through southeast part of the state that winds are out of the northwest at 15 to 25 mph.

Like 'a war zone'
On Thursday, 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," said Brandon Clabes, police chief of Midwest City.

"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.

On Friday, officials said 34 homes had been destroyed in Midwest City, and 17 in neighboring Choctaw.

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.

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.

Two firefighters were treated for exhaustion, and two others were treated for smoke inhalation.

At the Midwest City Community Center, where about 75 residents flocked to after flames threatened their homes, Kanisha Busby waited for her parents to arrive. Their home, where she grew up, was destroyed but nobody was hurt.

"It's hard, but all that stuff is material things that can be replaced; lives can't be replaced," Busby said. Residents were given sufficient warning to evacuate and her father also managed to save his dog, she said.

Roland and Tricia Smith wondered if their home survived. She said the fire engulfed parts of their neighborhood.

"We thought we were safe but in 30 minutes the fire went everywhere," she said. "I consider myself lucky we're safe."

'Fires everywhere'Crews already helping with blazes were being redirected because "there are fires everywhere," Chandler Emergency Management Director Larry Hicks said Thursday.

"We've got fires breaking out where they've already been put out," he said.

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.

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.

"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 Thursday. "When daylight breaks tomorrow, we will be able to better assess damages and determine our next step in helping people recover and rebuild."

Susan Staggs, who lives near Midwest City, said her home was saved because a pile of gravel and dirt from her neighbor's driveway project served as a firebreak. But the neighbor's home was destroyed.

Staggs said she and her neighbors who gathered at an evacuation point Thursday night could see the glow of flames, not knowing if their homes were being engulfed.

"After dark you could just see the flames crossing the road," she said. "I had two cats in my house and my horse and goats were still there." Her animals were OK, she said Friday, but her neighbor lost a barn and the horse that was in it.

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.

A fire at Lake Mineral Wells State Park in Texas destroyed one home. Another blaze in several Hudson Oaks subdivisions that destroyed four structures was nearly fully 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.