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Oklahoma Firefighters Struggling to Douse Monster Wildfires

by Corky Siemaszko /

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Wildfires were devouring large swaths of Oklahoma like a hungry beast Thursday as firefighters struggled to douse the flames.

Feeding on vegetation parched by drought and stoked the 50 mph winds, the fires in Oklahoma have merged into one huge inferno dubbed 350 Complex Fire that has already consumed 57,440 acres.

An aerial photo of the "350 Complex" fire that hit an area of about 55,000 acres located about 130 miles northwest on April 6, 2016.Oklahoma Forestry Services / Reuters

"It's been very active," said Hannah Anderson of Oklahoma Forestry Services. "We have only a 20 percent containment. We've had very strong winds, very low humidity... the perfect recipe for fire behavior."

Several firefighters have been hospitalized because of heat exhaustion, Anderson said. But there have been no fatalities and the tiny town of Freedom (pop. 306) and its iodine-manufacturing plant — both of which were directly in the path of the flames — have been spared.

Freedom had been evacuated Tuesday ahead of the flames while an army of firefighters backed up by aircraft dropping water and flame retardant from the sky did battle with the wildfires raging across northwestern Oklahoma.

"We have 230 people fighting the fire a the moment," Anderson said.

The Oklahoma smoke eaters have also gotten aerial reinforcements from neighboring Texas — more planes doing sorties over the flames and bombarding them with chemicals, she said.

Anderson said they are hoping Mother Nature will lend them a hand Thursday "with lower wind speeds."

Oklahoma is no stranger to these kinds of fires, she added. The latest blazes were touched off by downed power lines.

"Fires typically occur here ever two of three years," Anderson said. "Last week we had fires that consumed 400,000 acres."

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Kansas was also singed Wednesday by wildfires that burned some 18 square miles. In the town of Alma, city councilman Dan Deiter picked through the ashes of the Catholic school where he used to teach.

Deiter found a handmade crucifix but little else in what was left of the 126-year-old Holy Family Religious Education Building. “No hope for saving the building,” he told NBC affiliate KSNT.

Father Mike Peterson said he was relieved the church was spared. “I was greatly relieved when I was coming down the street and saw the steeple and it was still intact," he told the TV station.

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