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‘The worst disaster in Midwest City history’

BY BRYAN DEAN, ANN KELLEY and MICHAEL KIMBALL Modified: April 10, 2009 at 9:05 am •  Published: April 10, 2009
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uot;Firefighters can’t get a handle on it at this point. ... It’s a concern by the fact you’ve got all these fires that are laying in this thick brush that is rekindling. When the wind shifts directions, it will blow into those areas that have not yet burned.”

Mary Chilcoat said she was in her home watching the fires on television when a firefighter knocked on her door and told her she needed to evacuate. The firefighter brought her to the community center. She said she is worried about her home in the 600 block of S Anderson Road.

Chilcoat said she was only able to take her purse with her from her house, where she has lived since the 1970s.

Rochelle and Frank Respicio, both 35, couldn’t go home when they got off work because of the evacuation. They said their neighbors turned on sprinklers for them, but they worried about their dogs, Trixie and Pedro.

"We’re just praying everything’s going to be all right and we’re not going to be here all night,” Rochelle Respicio said.

Ryan Griswold, 21, and his sister went to the Midwest City command center at Westminster Road and SE 29 to pick up his cousin’s children.

Griswold’s said his family had been preparing to evacuate, but they were never forced to leave. His cousin, however, was asked to evacuate his home, so Griswold came to pick up his children for now.

"This is just like the (May 3, 1999) tornadoes, only it seems to be lasting a lot longer,” Griswold said.

At 10:45 p.m., the fire’s leading edges in Midwest City were near SE 15 and Indian Meridian Road and the 2000 block of S Hiwassee Road, Lojka said. He said the best-case scenario for when firefighters could have the blaze under control was midnight or 1 a.m., but it may be well into today before crews knock it down.

Firefighters could not get into the areas with the heaviest flames because the brush was too thick.

About 9:30 p.m., winds began to shift from the south and west to the north.

"With any luck, the wind shift will slow this down but we don’t know,” Lojka said. "There are houses that are still burning. This isn’t a safe place for people to be.”

Fallin visits
U.S. Rep. Mary Fallin visited with officials at the Midwest City command post to see what kind of assistance the federal government could provide. She will tour the area by helicopter today, she said.

"I’m not surprised at the outpouring of assistance throughout the state,” Fallin said. "Oklahoma does a super job when it comes to emergencies and people pulling together.”

Contributing: Staff Writers Jesse Olivarez, Robert Medley and Brian Sargent

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In the air

High winds complicated efforts to fight the numerous fires across the state.

Albert Ashwood, state emergency management director, said winds across much of the state were a sustained 30 miles per hour, gusting to more than 40 miles per hour.

"We’re trying to do all we can and everything we can to help the local firefighters out there,” he said. "When the winds are this high there is not a lot you can do but let it burn.”

He said conditions are too windy for helicopters to drop water on any fires.

On the road
Authorities closed Interstate 35 at Exit 55 in Murray County as smoke from grass fires caused hazardous driving conditions.

Flames north of Turner Falls near Davis caused the Oklahoma Highway Patrol to close the interstate in both directions.

Troopers also closed I-35 at mile marker 186 near Perry because of fire. Farther south, I-35 was closed along with State Highway 51 west of Stillwater. A Payne County sheriff’s dispatcher said smoke from the fires caused several wrecks on I-35. Some of those wrecks caused minor injuries, the dispatcher said.

Stillwater firefighters were battling the blaze, along with firefighters from other cities in the area.

Forecast
Fire danger, which was extreme Thursday, is considered high for today, according to the National Weather Service. High temperatures will be in the 50s and 60s, with low humidity and gusty north winds, meaning conditions will be ripe for fires again.

Chances for rain in the state return Saturday, but the fire risk remains high through Monday, forecasters said. The risk elevates again Tuesday to very high.

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