Dozens of homes destroyed in Texas, Oklahoma fires
MIDWEST CITY, Okla. (AP) -- Fire crews in Oklahoma and Texas raced Thursday to control wind-whipped wildfires that destroyed dozens of homes, forced evacuations and shut down parts of a major highway.
Howling wind that had gusted to more than 50 mph grounded firefighting efforts by air in Oklahoma 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 northeast Oklahoma 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, oil tanks and the charred remnants of buildings.
In Midwest City, some residents in the eastern part of the city 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.
In Lincoln County, a firefighter suffered major burns and was taken to an Oklahoma City hospital, Chandler Emergency Management Director Larry Hicks said.
"We had one truck that got overrun," Hicks said. "It's pretty severe."
Two firefighters were treated for exhaustion in Midwest City, and two other firefighters were treated for smoke inhalation in Lindsay.
Hicks said some crews already helping with blazes were being redirected because "there are fires everywhere."
"We've got fires breaking out where they've already been put out," he said.
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 and 20 more were being threatened, 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.
Interstate 35, the state's main north-south highway, was closed in the 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 about 65 miles northwest of Fort Worth, including Montague, Saint Jo and Bowie. Earlier in the day, a Bowie elementary school was evacuated.
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 a few miles 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 Thursday night. "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. Residents near Breckenridge in Stephens County were evacuated when a nearly 5-square-mile fire threatened an apartment complex, the forest service said.
A fire at Lake Mineral Wells State Park in Parker County that destroyed one home and threatened 50 others was being spread by 40 mph winds, county spokesman Joel Kertok said. He said another blaze in four 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 and Cooke counties, according to the Texas Forest Service.
More than 93 percent of Texas is was under some stage of drought, according to a U.S. Drought Monitor map released Thursday.
Associated Press writers Betsy Blaney in Lubbock, Texas and Angela K. Brown in Fort Worth, Texas, contributed to this report