Oklahoma wildfires destroy homes, force evacuations
Several wildfires raging in parched Oklahoma countryside prompted more evacuations early Sunday as emergency workers sought to shelter those forced out by the flames that destroyed dozens of homes and threatened others in the drought-stricken region.
One roaring fire near Luther, about 40 kilometres northeast of Oklahoma City, destroyed nearly five dozen homes and other buildings before firefighters gained a measure of control Saturday.
Authorities said several state roads remained closed early Sunday because of drifting smoke or nearby fires.
Mike Donegan, a communications supervisor with the Oklahoma State Highway Patrol at the Troop B command center, said evacuations were continuing early Sunday. He had no immediate details on the numbers forced from their homes but said officers were going door to door into certain communities to ensure people leave.
Donegan told The Associated Press he saw thick smoke drifting near his home some 80 kilometres from one of the fires as he drove into work.
"We got ash falling even where I live. I thought it was raining at first. The smoke was thick," Donegan said.
The Luther fire was one of at least 10 burning Saturday in Oklahoma, where a severe drought has settled on the countryside in a summer in which temperatures have topped 110 degrees in spots.
The fires include a large one in Creek County, in northeastern Oklahoma, that officials said had claimed about 125 square kilometres, and another about 56 kilometres to the west in Payne County.
Emergency management officials recently ordered residents of Mannford, in Creek County; Glencoe, in Payne County; Drumright, in Lincoln County; Oak Grove, in Pawnee County; and Quinton, in Pittsburg County, to leave their homes, according to Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management spokeswoman Keli Cain.
Cain said Saturday that no serious injuries had been reported.
Police suspect fire was intentionally set
Authorities said they suspect the fire near Luther may have been intentionally set, while the cause of the others was undetermined. The Oklahoma County sheriff's department said it was looking for someone in a black pickup truck seen throwing newspapers out a window after setting them ablaze.
Department spokeswoman Mary Myers said there were "no arrests, no suspects" but deputies were "working around the clock" to find anyone responsible.
Nigel Holderby, a disaster preparedness spokeswoman for the American Red Cross, inspected one shelter set up in Cushing, northeast of Oklahoma City. She told AP by phone early Sunday that about 50 people sought refuge overnight and had been given cots.
"We do have several shelter operations in full swing," she told AP by phone early Sunday. "We are providing food and water and we are also making sure the firefighters are hydrated."
Though the fires are scattered across the region, she said a largely volunteer effort has been able to respond and several shelters have been set up.
Gov. Mary Fallin toured Luther on Saturday, hugging residents whose homes and belongings were destroyed by the fire that swept through treetops on 39 kph winds.
"It's heartbreaking to see families that have lost so much," Fallin said after talking with some who were milling around the still-smoking debris that had been their homes. "I gave them a hug, told them I was sorry."
The fire burned just over 6.4 square kilometres, including an area near the Turner Turnpike, which carries Interstate 44 between Oklahoma City and Tulsa. The superhighway was briefly closed Friday.
In Creek County, county Commissioner Newt Stephens asked residents to be patient and to stay away from the flames in the northern part of the county.
On Saturday, those able to return their homes found charred timbers poking from the debris and the burned out shells of refrigerators, washers and dryers.
"It makes me feel sad," said Victoria Landavazo, clutching a young child in her arms. "It's all gone. All of our family pictures, everything."
Tracy Streeper was working in Oklahoma City, about 64 kilometres southwest of one of the fires, when she learned flames approaching her home. Caught in traffic, it took her a long time to return home and then, "once we got here, we had maybe 30 minutes."
She grabbed a few clothes, medicine and her three dogs and left quickly.
"Your adrenaline is running. You're pumped up," Streeper said. "You could just see a wall of flames coming this way. Everything was on fire."