Investigators said they hope a tip from the public will help them find whoever set several of the wildfires that devastated parts of central Oklahoma earlier this month, including one that killed a Norman woman.
The state fire marshal is investigating several fires in Cleveland County that were deliberately set. One of those wildfires killed Linda Zoldoske, 67, who could not escape her rural Norman home as it was consumed by the fire.
In Oklahoma County, a reward for information about a person thought to have started a fire that destroyed homes in Luther is up to $11,100 after individuals and businesses pledged to donations to a fund established by the Oklahoma County sheriff's lodge of Fraternal Order of Police.
The fires destroyed 603 homes statewide, 141 of them in Cleveland County and 33 in the Luther area. Oklahoma County Sheriff John Whetsel's office is investigating the Luther fire.
“We've got a few tips here and there, and we are following up on every one of them,” sheriff's spokesman Mark Myers said. “But really it is not as many as we obviously need. We thought with that reward we would get a few more tips. But it's pretty vague information to go on.”
A witness reported seeing a white man in a black Ford truck set the Luther fire. The sheriff's FOP lodge pledged a $1,000 reward in the case and has taken pledges from the public to add to that amount.
Larry Grant, president of the sheriff's FOP, said the fund is now up to $11,100.
“I think it's the seriousness and the viciousness that someone would purposely set a fire to destroy people's homes and their belongings and risking the lives of the firefighters and law enforcement people,” Grant said. “People want to help. We've had people on limited incomes give $20. It makes them feel good. It makes them feel like they are doing something.”
Myers said investigating wildfires is difficult because there often isn't much physical evidence to trace and because finding suspects without a witness is virtually impossible.
JoAnne Sellars, spokeswoman for the state fire marshal, said tracking arsonists is hard because the usual standard suspect information investigators would get from a victim or surveillance video or other primary sources isn't available.
“They do it under the cloud of secrecy,” Sellars said. “It's not like you go in front of somebody and hold a gun in their face and say ‘give me your money.' The help from the public and eyewitnesses is paramount to a successful investigation.”
Zoldoske died Aug. 4 when a wildfire destroyed her home on Bridge Creek Drive near 144th Avenue SE and Cedar Lane. Sellars said that fire was one of several that started on Cemetery Road and burned about 100 homes in Cleveland County. Investigators determined they were caused by an arsonist.
Sellars said the fire marshal's “best agent” is looking into the Cleveland County fires, but there is nothing new to report about a possible suspect.
Myers said Oklahoma County investigators also haven't found a good suspect in the Luther case.
“The only way we are going to solve this crime is if somebody knows something and comes forward and lets us know,” Myers said.