CHOCTAW — "I spent so much time playing in this yard,” Carrie Wertz said Friday, looking out on the Choctaw property her family has owned since before she was born. When she was little, the yard seemed bigger — and exactly the same green as the plastic grass in Easter baskets. The rural land was a vast playground, and on days when the Oklahoma wind picked up, the branches would shudder on the towering oak tree in the back yard, dappling the lawn with moving shadows. She met her husband on that lawn, back when they were children. Kenneth Wertz was her brother’s best friend, and Kenneth and Carrie chased each other around 1480 S Anderson Road from kindergarten to adulthood. They’re tied to this piece of earth. Both grew up on it, one way or another. Carrie’s mother still owns it. And until Thursday, Carrie and Kenneth were raising their four kids upon it. Then the wind came, rattling the oak tree and carrying blazing embers from the wildfire ravaging the Oakwood East housing addition in Midwest City, just one major road to the west. Everything changed.
Racing the flamesAbout 11 a.m., Shirley Jeanson felt the first stirrings of concern. A fire was burning somewhere west of her brick Oakwood East home. A male relative checked it out. He could see smoke, but it seemed far enough away that he didn’t think they had to worry. By 1:30 p.m., though, police were pounding on doors up and down the block. The blaze was approaching. Residents had to leave. "I pulled out of that driveway,” Jeanson said, "and there was fire on both sides of me. I got to thinking, ‘What if it all blows up?’” A short time later, LaRay Brown’s daughter called from Lawton, wanting to chat. Brown had been napping at her home at 1100 Pacific in Choctaw, and she told her daughter to call back in 15 minutes so she’d be less groggy. "She called back and asked if we could talk now,” Brown said, "and I said, ‘No, we can’t talk. The whole dadgum neighborhood’s on fire!’” Staring out the front door, Brown, 44, could see a wall of smoke and flame leaping forward. It tore through underbrush and trees on its way toward her. She hosed down the lawn and the roof, but a small fire erupted on the side of the house. By the time she’d put it out, the main fire was just across the street. She tossed her dachshund and a neighborhood cat in her vehicle and abandoned the house.
Access deniedCarrie and Kenneth Wertz and their children weren’t home. After several years of living in her parents’ old house, the Wertzes were moving to a different house. The place wasn’t completely livable yet — Kenneth was building an addition to accommodate all the children — but about a fourth of the family’s belongings had been moved over there. The rest was still in the Anderson Road home and the barn, which was completely full. "We had a brand-new swimming pool we just bought last year, and a bunch of tools and equipment and all,” said Carrie Wertz, 41. When they heard about the fire, they tried approaching the Anderson Road home from the north, but fire crews and police had shut down the road. They circled around to Reno Avenue and tried getting in from the south. No luck. They couldn’t get to their belongings or their cats. They could only watch as the flames crested the hill and surged across the road. They left.
‘We will survive’Jeanson, Brown and the Wertz family returned to their homes Friday morning. Of them all, Jeanson was the luckiest. Several homes in Oakwood East were destroyed. Fire skipped through the housing addition like a tornado, choosing houses at random. Across Westbury Drive, Jeanson’s neighbors lost everything. Her home escaped intact. The blaze melted a plastic storage tub, scorched the grass, damaged a glider and burned holes in the stockade fence, but firefighters stopped it just short of the house. "It’s the craziest thing,” Jeanson said. "Would you believe we just put up that fence last week?” Little remained of Brown’s home but a leaking aboveground pool and a charred foundation. Her family and friends raked through the ashes Friday, digging out coins and jewelry. Like the Wertzes, Brown was planning to move and had already purchased another home. "It’s not ready to live in,” she said, "but it’ll have to be. We’ve got people volunteering to come in and help us get it ready. ... I feel luckier than most. We have another home. We had insurance. A lot of people came away from this with nothing but the clothes on their backs.” The Wertz home was not insured. It was destroyed. So was the barn, which contained part of a bell collection that Carrie’s mother had acquired over the years. Shards of bells could be seen among the ashes. A handful of them were saved. Carrie cried when she saw the wreckage. "It’s my family home,” she said, trying to control herself. "It’s horrible. You don’t really know what to think, you know. You’re just numb all over.” She looked up at the oak tree, which was untouched by flames. "We’ll survive,” she said. "We will survive.”