Central Oklahomans can count themselves lucky nobody was killed in Friday’s raging, wind-pushed wildfires that destroyed dozens of homes and left 15 people injured, emergency managers said Saturday after surveying the blackened remains of homes, barns and vehicles. “After I walked in those neighborhoods and looked at the damage, it could have been much, much worse,” said Michelann Ooten, spokeswoman for the Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management. “However, if you are one of those looking at your home that has been reduced to rubble, it probably doesn’t feel that way.” Fifteen people were injured and at least 34 homes were destroyed by Friday’s ferocious Central Oklahoma wildfires, emergency management officials reported. Officials said the wildfires burned across more than 9,000 acres. No immediate estimate of the dollar loss was available. The 15 injured people included six who had minor burns and nine who suffered from smoke inhalation — six of whom were firefighters, according to the Oklahoma Health Department and the Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management. The firefighters were treated at the scene in Harrah. All the injuries appeared to be relatively minor, Ooten said. The fires did their worst damage around Harrah and Choctaw in eastern Oklahoma County, where 30 homes were destroyed and seven others were damaged, Ooten said. Other fire damage was reported west of Bethel Acres in western Pottawatomie County, where four homes were destroyed, and near Goldsby in McClain County, where 16 structures burned to the ground, officials said. It initially was reported that six of the 16 structures that burned near Goldsby were homes, but Ooten said officials now believe all of those destroyed structures may have been used for storage. At least 42 fires were reported statewide Friday. Oklahoma Forestry officials reported some of the largest fires were in Creek, Grady, Lincoln, McClain, Oklahoma, Okmulgee, Pottawatomie, Seminole and Tulsa counties. Ooten said Saturday that state emergency management officials hadn’t received reports from some of those areas yet, so the tally of homes destroyed Friday could rise.
Safe for nowFor many, Friday’s wildfires brought flashbacks to a day two years ago when firestorms broke out in Eastern Oklahoma County, consuming 58 homes in Choctaw and 12 in Midwest City. Firefighters braced for another round of raging wildfires Saturday, but received a reprieve when winds died down overnight and the humidity rose, diminishing the fire danger. Cheryl Sharpe of the National Weather Service said the higher humidity levels and more gentle winds are expected to continue through the upcoming week, so she is not expecting a repeat of Friday’s wildfires soon. “As long as vegetation stays brown there will still be some fire issues, but not like the raging fires of yesterday,” Sharpe said Saturday. Ooten said that’s good news, but Oklahomans should remain vigilant. “We don’t want people to get lulled into a false sense of security,” she said. “Things certainly are a little better today than they were yesterday and they may be a little better tomorrow than they are today, but we continue to be in a drought.” That means conditions could worsen in a hurry at any time, perhaps even later this week, she said. A State of Emergency remains in effect for all 77 counties as declared by Gov. Mary Fallin on Friday. Under the executive order, state agencies can make emergency purchases and acquisitions needed to expedite the delivery of resources to local jurisdictions. The declaration also marks an early step toward seeking federal assistance, should it be necessary. Oklahoma was not totally without wildfires Saturday. Saturday’s largest fire was in Hughes County, southwest of Wetumka, where fire burned across more than 3,500 acres, emergency management officials said. In Le Flore County, four fires burned in rural areas Saturday morning, but there were no reports of any structures being destroyed, said Terri Lynch, a 911 dispatcher in the county. The largest fire in that county consumed more than 100 acres in the Sugar Loaf Mountain area near Monroe, but it appeared to have been extinguished by early Saturday afternoon, officials said. Firefighters remained on the scenes of Friday’s central Oklahoma wildfires throughout the day Saturday, but were mostly there to pour water on smoldering spots and make sure flames didn’t erupt again.
Surveying damageWith the situation once again under control, politicians were able to come in and assess the damage. Gov. Fallin and U.S. Rep. James Lankford toured burned homes around Harrah Saturday, stopping on Linda Lane to console fire victims and hear their stories. About a half-dozen homes along a quarter-mile stretch had burned to the ground. Families sifted through ashes searching for any valuables and even the smallest bits of memorabilia they might be able to salvage. Fallin said she was thankful to see so many people embodying what she called “the Oklahoma spirit,” by helping those who are now homeless. She said she is saddened that so many lost years of memories. Don Hatchett leaned against a red pickup truck, steadying himself with a cane. To his left, his home was in ruins, and the blackened skeletons of four small bicycles lay where the front porch used to be. “I’m safe and my grandkids are safe,” Hatchett told Fallin. “That’s really all that matters.” Lankford prayed with some of the homeowners. David Barnes, director of Oklahoma County’s emergency management office said at least 24 fire departments provided assistance in fighting Friday’s fires in eastern Oklahoma County, with some of the firefighters coming from as far away as Kingfisher. A crew from Logan County arrived Saturday afternoon so relieve some of the local firefighters so they could get some rest, he said. Fire Management Assistance Grants through the Federal Emergency Management Agency have been approved for Friday’s fires in Harrah, Shawnee, Goldsby and Midwest City/Choctaw, officials said. The grants will provide recovery assistance to fire departments and other emergency organizations to help cover expenses related to responding to the fires. State emergency management officials have applied for the grants in other jurisdictions as well and are awaiting approval. Nurses from the Oklahoma City-County Health Department are offering free tetanus shots for individuals working to clean up after the wildfires.