Winds Ease, And Texas, Okla. Survey Damage

Saturday, April 11th 2009, 9:37 am
By: News 9

(CBS/AP)  Wildfires have killed at least three people, destroyed dozens of homes and scorched more than 100,000 acres of drought-parched Texas, but the high winds that had fanned the flames were easing Friday.

Firefighters mopped up hot spots today from the wind-driven wildfires that injured at least 34 people in western and central Oklahoma and destroyed more than 100 homes.

At least three people were killed across the state line in Texas.

The fires began Thursday afternoon along the Interstate 35, the main north-south highway through central Oklahoma. They continued to burn past nightfall, fueled by ferocious winds and an abundance of dry, early spring grass and brush. But lighter winds in the region made things easier for firefighters Friday in both states.

"We have in excess of 100 homes that have been destroyed statewide," Emergency Management Director Albert Ashwood said Friday morning. Officials said the Midwest City fire apparently started at a wrecker service. The city's fire marshal said late Friday that the fire had been intentionally set.

Authorities have Not identified any suspects, but witnesses spotted several teenagers acting suspiciously in the area where the fire broke out, report CBS News correspondent Don Teague from Choctaw, Oklahoma.

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

Gov. Brad Henry declared a state of emergency for 31 central and southern Oklahoma communities, which allows state agencies to speed the delivery of needed resources. Texas Gov. Rick Perry was asking FEMA to issue an emergency declaration that would provide federal assets and resources for 199 threatened counties.

Residents who were evacuated while the fires raged were allowed to return home. For Sammetra Christmon of Midwest City, 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."

The Henry family in Chocktaw saw their house razed as well.

"It's devastating to see your home like this but its, that's what it is - it's a house and what makes a home is your family and friends and the community," Kathy Henry told Teague

The Henrys escaped just seconds before their house was overwhelmed by a 50 foot wall of flames. They watched it burn on local news.

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

"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.

In northern Texas, blazes raced across thousands of parched acres Thursday, overrunning the towns of Sunset and Stoneburg and forcing the temporary evacuations in several others.

Linda Freeman was returning from work Thursday night when the 64-year-old was told to evacuate her mobile home in Sunset. She said she went to her son's house about 10 miles away where "he turned on the news, and I saw my home burning." On Friday, all that remained were the steel stairs that once led to her front door.

The town's fire chief, Alan Campbell, said nine homes had burned to the ground.

Montague County Sheriff Paul Cunningham said Friday that a woman died, possibly from a heart attack, after calling for an ambulance in a fire near Bowie on Thursday.

Montague County about 55 miles northwest of Fort Worth along the border of Oklahoma - where wildfires also were raging - was battling five separate blazes Friday. Dozens of homes were destroyed, several in the small towns of Sunset and Stoneburg, as a total of 30,000 acres were burning in the county.

"We've lost communities, pretty much," Cunningham said. "Stoneburg is pretty much gone."

WFAA-TV of Dallas-Fort Worth identified the other victims as former WFAA reporter Matt Quinn and his wife, Cathy. The station reported their son, Chris, was in fair condition with burns at Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas.

The National Weather Service said there was a high fire danger in the North Texas area Friday due to dry conditions and wind gusts up to 25 mph. That's down considerably from the 60-mph gusts that fanned the flames Thursday and created an extreme danger of fire.

"Things are starting to look a little better," Texas Forest Service spokeswoman Misty Wilburn said. "Today the Texas Forest Service is definitely on the offense, not on the defense."

Throughout Sunset, a town of about 350 located in an area of small, rolling hills, buildings were destroyed in a seemingly random fashion. Some houses were blackened and burned to the ground, while others remained standing where residents scrambled to save their homes with garden hoses.

The Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management said a firefighter helping battle a blaze in Lincoln County, northeast of Oklahoma City, was hospitalized with burns and another person was severely injured after losing control of a vehicle on a smoke-covered road in Stephens County in southern Oklahoma.

Other injuries ranged from minor to moderate, officials said.

At the Midwest City Community Center, where about 75 residents flocked 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.

Susan Staggs, who lives near Midwest City, said Friday that she and her neighbors who gathered at an evacuation point Thursday night could see the glow of flames, but didn't know 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 home was spared, it turned out, because a pile of gravel and dirt from her neighbor's driveway project served as a firebreak. But the neighbor's home was lost.

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