A massive wildfire that burned dozens of homes in northeast Oklahoma City reignited Wednesday and refused to die despite the best efforts of 300 firefighters aided by water-dropping helicopters.
Firefighters battled hot spots and flare-ups all day even as victims sorted through the ashes the fire left behind Tuesday and early Wednesday.
Oklahoma National Guard helicopters dumped large buckets of water in coordination with firefighters who tried to extinguish the remnants of the fire that started about 12:30 p.m. Tuesday at NE 50 near Sooner Road and moved north as far as Britton Road before it was eventually contained in the evening.
Sustained winds of 22 mph with gusts up to 28 mph whipped the flames Wednesday and stymied firefighters at every turn. One flare-up got out of control about 4 p.m. and spread as far north as NE 122 between Sooner Road and Midwest Boulevard.
“This morning when we started, we had the fire fairly well contained. When the winds picked up this afternoon, we had a major flare-up on the north end of the fire and it starting advancing again to the north as it did
“One of the biggest problems we have right now is the dense vegetation. We just have some real difficulties accessing the fire itself and we can't get our equipment ... close enough to put water on it and try to contain it,” Bryant said at sundown.
Oklahoma City Deputy Chief Kellie Sawyers said three to five structures burned in that flare-up, but she did not know whether the structures were homes, barns or unoccupied buildings.
“With these new outbreaks, both this one here in the northeast area, and the southeast area, we're probably going to add to number of structures destroyed,” Bryant said.
At least nine houses burned in Wednesday's flare-ups and across 3,000 acres, according to Oklahoma City Deputy Fire Chief Marc Woodard.
City officials completed a preliminary report on Tuesday's damage and found the fire had destroyed 17 houses, five mobile homes and one church, Harrison Bethel Baptist Church at 6300 NE 71. Three houses suffered major damage, one had minor damage and eight more had slight damage. Many barns and structures were destroyed. Officials said they did not know the extent of damage from Wednesday's fire.
Fire melted metal
Oklahoma City Fire Chief Keith Bryant said a 12-square-mile area was scorched Tuesday, with more land burned as the flames spread north.
Joe Turner, 54, said he lost three mobile homes at his property at 6000 NE 63. Turner lived in one of the homes, his sister lived in another and the third was for storage. He also lost several vehicles and dogs in the fire.
Turner sought refuge Wednesday at a shelter set up by the American Red Cross at Forest Park Community Center after viewing the damage on his 20-acre property.
“It's torched. I've been there 35 years, and I didn't even recognize it,” Turner said. “I don't know what I'm going to do. I just came from there looking for something salvageable, but there ain't nothing.”
Turner marveled at the heat generated by the fire, which melted metal girders beneath his mobile home and melted an engine from his vehicle.
Midwest City Fire Chief Randy Olsen, whose crews were helping battle the blaze, credited Oklahoma City for a quick response that kept the fire from becoming even worse.
Olsen said firefighters were exhausted during Tuesday's efforts, but most were back fighting the blaze again Wednesday.
“These guys are well-trained and physically fit,” Olsen said.
Barricades remained in place in much of the area ravaged by the fire, and authorities encouraged people to stay out of the area. On Wednesday morning, firefighters worked to defend homes and property along Britton Road near Prosper Drive as crews from Edmond, Midwest City, Del City, Jones and Canadian County arrived as reinforcement. About 300 firefighters were on the scene Wednesday, officials said.
Oklahoma Air National Guard helicopters dropped water on hot spots unreachable by fire vehicles.
Numerous people evacuated Tuesday were still waiting to get back to their homes Wednesday. Cedar trees continued to explode in flames, and downed power lines created hazards throughout the area.
At the corner of NE 102 and Midwest Boulevard, the wind caught some embers in the brush and sent flames racing toward a house. The flames had engulfed it before firefighters arrived.
Stacey Shields said an older man lives in the home. Her own house is on the south side of NE 102, and smoke from the woods behind it provided a stark backdrop to the two-story Victorian home.
“We built this house. If it goes, I'm going to watch,” she said.
A fire engine sat in the driveway. Mike Shields said firefighters told him they were going to be able to keep fire from reaching the home.
“They were more confident about it than I am,” he said. “It's my son's 21st birthday today,” Stacey Shields said, adding she was supposed to be in another town.
“We've got three churches praying for us, so what more can we do?” she said.
About 1,200 Oklahoma Gas and Electric Co. customers in eastern Oklahoma City were without power Wednesday afternoon. Company spokesman Brian Alford said the electrical system damaged by Tuesday's fire has been repaired, but fire officials don't want it turned on yet.
“We're awaiting the OK to re-energize those parts of the system,” he said. “There's still a lot of water being put on hot spots in those areas.”
George Caldwell, 58, said he watched closely as the fire burned several homes near his property. He said he was in Guthrie when he got a call about the wildfire. Worried about his dog, Buddy, Caldwell said he rushed home to take the dog to safety.
As firefighters worked to put out hot spots on NE 66 near Harrison, Caldwell sat outside his home Wednesday and watched them work.
“All these guys are working constantly with each other,” he said. “They saved me.”
Kevan Finley, CEO of Cedar Ridge Hospital, said about 80 patients and 180 staff members had to leave about 1:30 p.m. Tuesday. He said the patients were taken to different hospitals in the area and haven't been brought back.
One firefighter was taken to a hospital in good condition Wednesday after having chest pains. Three firefighters were treated Tuesday, along with two civilians who were treated for smoke inhalation. A firefighter from Byers and another from Oklahoma City were treated for heat exhaustion, and a Midwest City firefighter was treated for smoke inhalation.