Oklahoma Recovering From More Than 30 Wildfires; Governor Tours Harrah

Saturday, March 12th 2011, 11:40 am
By: News 9

Staff and Wire Reports

HARRAH, Oklahoma -- Wildfires that destroyed dozens of homes in Oklahoma largely died down Saturday, with cooler temperatures and slower winds helping firefighters get the blazes under control.

Governor Mary Fallin, U.S. Representative James Lankford and Commissioner Brian Maughan toured the areas devastated by wildfires Saturday morning.

The governor urged residents to reach out for help. 

"We've got great charities that have been through this before. That's one of the blessings of Oklahoma is that we all come together as the Oklahoma family when tragedies like this strike," said Gov. Fallin.

Fallin said she was glad to see insurance companies already out helping people, adding the state is available to help them as well.

In Oklahoma, where at least 49 homes had been destroyed, an emergency management official said no major fires continued to burn, although there were still some hotspots and smoky areas Saturday. Thousands of acres have been burned in both Oklahoma and Texas.

In Texas, where a handful of homes were lost, a forest service statement said it expected slower winds and more moisture in the air to help get things under control.

Unseasonably warm temperatures and strong winds helped fuel the fires Friday, when the National Weather Service issued a red flag fire warning for most of Oklahoma and Texas, as well as for parts of Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico and Missouri.

Thirty fires broke out in Oklahoma, with the worst damage occurring in the Oklahoma City suburbs of Harrah and Choctaw.

Thirty-nine homes were lost there, while six were destroyed in Goldsby and four in the Shawnee area. Like much of the state, the burned areas have been in a prolonged drought.

Michelann Ooten, a spokeswoman for the Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management, said firefighters continued to work in some hotspots, but it was "nothing like what we were doing yesterday."

Harrah Wildfire

Winds with gusts of 40 mph to 50 mph had died down, and cooler temperatures had helped ease the situation, she said. No major fires were still burning.

Ooten said officials planned to focus on damage assessments Saturday because by the time the fires were under control Friday, it was dark.

"Today with sunlight assisting them, they'll be able to do a far more intensive assessment," she said.

Billie and Dana Hicks didn't expect to have much left after fleeing their new home in Harrah as a wildfire began consuming their neighbor's place Friday.

They had been able to salvage some family belongings after a tornado destroyed their home last May and had just moved into their new house with their five children a few months ago. But authorities said at least 30 homes were destroyed by fire in Harrah on Friday.

Goldsby Grass Fires

"We thought this was going to be a better year," Billie Hicks, 54, said wryly.

The fire in Harrah, about 20 miles east of downtown Oklahoma City, forced the evacuation of schools and a nursing home and caused some minor smoke-related injuries. Phil Stewart, public information office for the Harrah Police Department, said the high school wasn't damaged but there were tense moments as the fire crept closer.

"It got right next to the junior high. It burned to the bricks, to the doors but by that time we had everyone evacuated," Stewart said.

The Red Cross of Central Oklahoma encourages anyone affected by the Oklahoma wildfires to come by the Client Assistance Center at the Harmony Christian Church, 7100 S. Choctaw Road in Choctaw.

Harrah Nursing Home Evacuated

Hours of operation are from 12 to 6 p.m. Sunday. The Central Oklahoma Red Cross can be contacted at 405-228-9500.

Gov. Mary Fallin, who toured fire damage in eastern Oklahoma County, declared a state of emergency for all 77 counties in the state, marking a first step toward seeking federal assistance should it be necessary.

"State Emergency Management Director Albert Ashwood and I went down to visit with local firefighters in the Choctaw area to thank them for the long hours they have put in today under very dangerous circumstances with the high winds and the low humidity and the heat the dry grass," Fallin said.

"We've had over 30 fires today and to coordinate services throughout the state has been quite a challenge."