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Flames bring evacuations, road closures across Oklahoma

BY BRYAN DEAN Modified: April 10, 2009 at 8:36 am •  Published: April 10, 2009
Wind-whipped fires burned dry grass and brush across areas of central Oklahoma on Thursday, destroying dozens of homes, forcing the closure of Interstate 35 and leading authorities to evacuate residents.

The Oklahoma Department of Health reported 34 injuries across the state. One severe injury was reported in Stephens County, where a motorist lost control of her vehicle on a smoke-covered road. A Lincoln County firefighter suffered serious burns and was taken to Integris Burn Center in Oklahoma City. His condition was not available but he was stabilized, officials said. No other serious injuries were reported.

In Choctaw, authorities said "less than 20” homes had been destroyed, although they did not have an exact count. Officials said more homes could burn overnight as winds shifted and took burning embers into new areas.

"We’ve lost major homes,” Fire Chief Loren Bumgarner said.

Choctaw Mayor Randy Ross said officials have asked hundreds of people to evacuate as fires neared Choctaw High School. Although the school escaped damage, homes south of the school continued to burn past 10 p.m.

"We have asked several additions to completely evacuate,” Ross said. "The additions around the high school — virtually everything between NE 23 and Reno and between Henney and Indian Meridian — we’ve asked those people to either leave or at least be cognizant of what’s going on.”

Ross said firefighters have also been hampered by damage to infrastructure.

"I’ve lost a couple of water wells, which is problematic when you are fighting fires,” Ross said. "That will be a challenge for us in the morning.”

Residents of evacuated homes waited outside a tire store.

"There wasn’t time to get nothing,” said Willie Bennett, 69, a retired mechanic. He was worried about three dogs he left at his house near Choctaw High School.

"Man, how did this get started?” he said.

Another evacuated Choctaw homeowner, Benny Workman, 65, said police went door to door asking people to leave.

"They came banging on the doors telling us to get the heck out,” he said.

Workman said he grabbed valuables, documents, his dog and some dog food.

"The smoke was so thick,” he said.

Choctaw and Nicoma Park schools will be closed today, officials said.

Authorities in Lindsay said 11 homes were destroyed and two others were in danger from a fire along State Highway 76 north of Lindsay.

Lindsay Fire Chief Jay Selzer said the fire was stretching at least 61/2 miles on both sides of State Highway 76. Residents of about 100 homes in the area were evacuated as firefighters battled the blaze into the night.

Selzer said a firefighter and a bystander were treated for heat exhaustion, but there were no serious injuries.

Kevin Rhoads, Purcell Emergency Management Director, said 12 to 15 square miles were burned.

Brenda Nunn, who lives on State Highway 76 about eight miles north of Lindsay, said she went outside and began watering the grass around her home when she heard about the approaching fire at 3 p.m.

A sheriff’s deputy came by and told her to evacuate.

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About 2,400 OG&E customers were without power Thursday night, including nearly 1,000 in Midwest City, officials said.


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