Oklahoma Wildfires: Homes destroyed, residents evacuated in several counties

Some residents returned to assess the mess; police still looking for possible arsonist; six helicopters from Oklahoma National Guard dispatched to help contain biggest blazes.
BY ZEKE CAMPFIELD zcampfield@opubco.com Modified: August 4, 2012 at 11:04 pm •  Published: August 4, 2012

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.

Luther

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.

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