LUTHER — Casey Strahan didn't bring his wife and two kids back with him to their home in Luther early Saturday because he wasn't quite sure whether they could handle the sight of it.
Like his neighbors on South Dogwood Street and in other, more random spots across town, Strahan spent the first half of Saturday staring in shock at the finality of a wildfire that scorched through town Friday evening.
“You never know how bad it is until you come out here and see it and try to pick stuff up — but it's all white chalk and ash,” he said. “It's over now. You gotta find a spot to get going and start over.”
Stahan's home was consumed by one of more than a dozen wildfires that burned across Oklahoma Friday and Saturday in the oppressive triple-digit heat.
A spokesman for the Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management said at least five major fires that burned Friday night were joined Saturday with several new ones.
Several dozen homes are confirmed destroyed, and several communities were evacuated Friday and Saturday as reported to the Emergency Alert System, said Keli Cain, department spokesman. A total of 52,000 acres burned statewide as a result of Friday's wildfires, Cain said Saturday afternoon. Several highways and roads remained closed Saturday night and as many as 40 homes had been destroyed.
The evacuations included Luther in Oklahoma County, Glencoe in Payne County, Drumright in Lincoln County and Mannford in Creek County. There were also a smaller number of homes evacuated in Pittsburg County as a result of the grass fire near Lake Eufaula and homes were evacuated in Oak Grove in Pawnee County, Cain said.
“It's a combination of hot temperatures, low humidity and what has really been the deciding factor the last two days has been the wind,” she said.
At least seven firefighters have been treated for heat exhaustion, but no fatalities or major injuries have been reported otherwise.
The National Weather Service in Norman predicts some relief from the excessive heat early in the week as a cold front with scattered showers was expected to go through Oklahoma early Sunday. Sunday's forecast high is expected to be 99 degrees.
Cain said the state dispatched six helicopters from Oklahoma National Guard as well as resources from Oklahoma Forestry Services to assist firefighters with the blazes.
Oklahoma County Emergency Management Director David Barnes said containment remained about 80 percent through the day Saturday. Winds were expected to shift as the evening hours commenced, but Barnes said emergency responders would be ready.
“It's not an open, forward-progressing fire by any means; a perimeter has been established. But there are several areas that have deep-setting fire because of brush and we're having to cut access through that using bulldozers,” he said.
He said more than 100 firefighters from 40 different agencies worked the scene Saturday mopping up hot spots.
Less than a mile away, at an auditorium, community volunteers and relief workers fed donated hot dogs, hamburgers and water to victims and emergency responders. A stack of water bottles reached clear to the ceiling in one corner of the lobby; a medical and rehab room consumed an adjacent room.
Sandy Graber, general manager for Luther Economic Development Authority, said this is a town of neighbors, where support is usually only a phone call away. Luther will pull through together, Graber said.
“It's gonna impact the local economy, but I think we can get past that,” she said. “Luther is a real tight-knit community and we pull together in hard times.”
Casey Strahan's home sits across the street from the town's elementary school and was one of 14 destroyed by the fire. Many dozens more structures here and in the outlying areas were burned as well. His house was reduced to a smoldering pile of ash, only the skeletons of its more durable fixtures standing intact — a bathtub, the kitchen stove.
Investigators say they believe the fire was started by an arsonist who was throwing lighted newspapers from the window of a pickup. Oklahoma County Sheriff's Department is seeking the public's help in locating the driver of a black 2008 Ford F-150 pickup that was seen in the area just before the fires. Anyone with information is asked to call 863-2501.
The cause, though, doesn't matter right now for the victims. Right now it's about taking it all in and determining a plan for short-term relief.
“You can't even put it into words when you realize, ‘I have nowhere to go home,'” said Megan Renner, who lives a few houses down. “I have no home.”
Renner, a 21-year-old nursing student, was at school when she heard the wildfire was threatening her neighborhood. She rushed to meet her brother and several other family members at the house just in time to get some of the more important stuff out.
Then they watched as the three-bedroom brick home went up in smoke.
“We're still kind of in shock — we really want to go through it and see if anything is left, but it's still burning,” Renner said.
Victoria Landavazo, who lived next door, was in tears as she returned home for the first time Saturday. She said her husband and their seven children stayed behind at a friend's house in Arcadia while she surveyed the damage.
They spent the night praying.
“God is with us no matter what. He can take everything, but He left our lives,” Landavazo said between tears. “It's going to be hard, but I know he's in control.”
Dozens of structures have burned since fires erupted near Norman, Slaughterville and Noble on Friday.
The heaviest workload Saturday afternoon was two miles east of Slaughterville on 156 Street, said Moore Fire Chief Gary Bird.
Bird said 100 to 150 firefighters were on the scene, and he asked that evacuees continue to stay away from the area.
“There's lots of residents who live out here staying in other places — please continue to stay there, do not try to return home yet,” he said. “We're just going to have to see what the weather holds and see if we have any good luck on it.”
State Highway 9 east of Norman remained closed between E 84 and E 168. A Red Cross shelter was to remain open Saturday night for evacuees at Slaughterville Baptist Church, 10101 60 St., in Lexington.
On Friday afternoon, Harold Grigg, of Slaughterville, said he tried to rescue his mother-in-law, Roselee Oliver, 69, but ran into a roadblock at Etowah Road. He said he convinced the police officer to let him through. “She's in ill health and couldn't get out of the house,” he told a photographer Saturday morning.
He did get her, and said that the house was still standing, but when he came back Saturday morning, it was gone. He had lived there 30 years.
His wife, Vicky Grigg, came back Saturday to find her Nissan Altima parked in the driveway untouched. But her keys inside the house were burned.
Emergency management officials ordered the evacuation of western and southwestern Mannford as thousands of acres burned across Creek County Saturday.
EMSA medics were assisting local nursing home residents evacuate, said Carolyn Smythe, a volunteer firefighter and the Mannford Fire Department's ambulance director. Smythe said the damage will be significant. A Mannford police spokesman said the department has evacuated homes on Farrow, Aspen and Birch drives as well as Dogwood Road. The department later issued a mandatory evacuation for the town.
In Drumright, about 1,400 people were without power Saturday afternoon. The Turner Turnpike between Tulsa and Bristow was shut down for several hours Saturday because of a wildfire in the Bristow and Kelleyville area, the Oklahoma Highway Patrol reported.
Cain said new fires erupted Saturday north of the airport in Stillwater, southwest of Quinton in Pittsburg County, and along Interstate 40 in Pottawatomie County.
Contributing: Staff Writer LeighAnne Manwarren