‘The worst disaster in Midwest City history’

BY BRYAN DEAN, ANN KELLEY and MICHAEL KIMBALL Modified: April 10, 2009 at 9:05 am •  Published: April 10, 2009
Midwest City Police Chief Brandon Clabes watched towers of flame and smoke rise over homes in several neighborhoods Thursday evening.

As wind-whipped wildfires spread out of control, every blowing ember became a potential threat. Every home’s rooftop was potential kindling for the next fire.

Clabes said he can’t think of a disaster where more Midwest City residents had their lives or homes put in danger. About 100 homes were destroyed, authorities said.

"This is probably the worst disaster in Midwest City’s history, even worse than the May 3, 1999, tornadoes,” Clabes said.

No serious injuries were reported in Midwest City.

"But I don’t think we’re going to have these fires out anytime soon. They’re out of control,” Clabes said Thursday evening, adding the fires rekindled as fast as they could be put out because of the winds.

A grass fire that burned two acres near SE 15 and Buena Vista was extinguished around 3:00 Friday morning, according to Midwest City fire department officials.

Jerry Lojka, Midwest City fire spokesman, said fires Thursday were leapfrogging from home to home as high winds carried burning embers to rooftops. The Turtlewood, Windsong and Oakwood additions were those most affected by the fires near SE 28 and Westminster. Oakwood East was the worst hit, he said.

Flames moved too fast for firefighters to keep up in many cases, Lojka said.

Lojka said all 89 of Midwest City’s firefighters were fighting the fire late Thursday, which officials believe is the first time in the city’s history its entire force has been deployed to one fire.

No serious injuries had been reported by 10 p.m., Lojka said. Some residents had been treated for smoke inhalation and some firefighters were treated for dehydration.

Authorities sent residents in the evacuated areas to the Midwest City Community Center, where about 100 people were staying Thursday evening.

Shannon Kaelin, who lives in the Oakwood East addition, said a police officer knocked on her door and told her to get out as fast as she could. She said she grabbed her daughter, purse and cell phone and got into her car, but the prospect of leaving seemed more frightening than staying.

Kaelin, 37, said trees were burning and flames shot up more than 30 feet into the air as she drove down the street leaving her neighborhood. Struggling to see amid smoke and bumper-to-bumper traffic, Kaelin said she could feel the heat from the fire as she crept along in the slow-moving traffic.

"I was so scared, I didn’t know if we should jump out of the car and run,” Kaelin said.

The first fire in Midwest City was reported about 3 p.m. at SE 29 and Post Road with winds coming from the southwest.

"The fire keeps rekindling because the wind is blowing 25 to 30 mph in different directions,” Clabes said.


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In the air

High winds complicated efforts to fight the numerous fires across the state.

Albert Ashwood, state emergency management director, said winds across much of the state were a sustained 30 miles per hour, gusting to more than 40 miles per hour.

"We’re trying to do all we can and everything we can to help the local firefighters out there,” he said. "When the winds are this high there is not a lot you can do but let it burn.”

He said conditions are too windy for helicopters to drop water on any fires.

On the road
Authorities closed Interstate 35 at Exit 55 in Murray County as smoke from grass fires caused hazardous driving conditions.

Flames north of Turner Falls near Davis caused the Oklahoma Highway Patrol to close the interstate in both directions.

Troopers also closed I-35 at mile marker 186 near Perry because of fire. Farther south, I-35 was closed along with State Highway 51 west of Stillwater. A Payne County sheriff’s dispatcher said smoke from the fires caused several wrecks on I-35. Some of those wrecks caused minor injuries, the dispatcher said.

Stillwater firefighters were battling the blaze, along with firefighters from other cities in the area.

Forecast
Fire danger, which was extreme Thursday, is considered high for today, according to the National Weather Service. High temperatures will be in the 50s and 60s, with low humidity and gusty north winds, meaning conditions will be ripe for fires again.

Chances for rain in the state return Saturday, but the fire risk remains high through Monday, forecasters said. The risk elevates again Tuesday to very high.

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