Firefighters continue to battle wildfires

Thursday, September 21st 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

GUTHRIE, Okla. (AP) -- U.S. Forest Service firefighters slugged through heavy brush and thick smoke to battle a stubborn wildfire that has scorched nearly 40,000 acres as Oklahomans who lost their homes to other fires sifted through the charred rubble.

The blaze that continued to burn Wednesday in southern Oklahoma's rugged Arbuckle Mountains was the largest of more than 100 wildfires that have burned fields and forests and damaged or destroyed at least 60 homes across the state.

"A lot of families are just devastated. I've dealt with a lot of fires but nothing this large," said Pat Oliver, executive director of the Red Cross chapter in Logan County, located about 50 miles north of Oklahoma City.

A half dozen air tankers and eight helicopters from Oklahoma, Texas and Kansas ferried tons of water to dump on 17 wildfires that continued to burn on Wednesday. Between 200 and 300 U.S. Forest Service firefighters from across the South arrived in the state to help weary crews.

Albert Ashwood, state director of emergency management, said the Forest Service firefighters were dispatched to the Arbuckles, which he called the state's top priority. Officials said the fire line in the mountains was 10 miles long and as many as 40 fire departments were working on the fire.

"This additional manpower from the Forest Service will be a tremendous asset to fight this fire on the ground," Ashwood said.

A grass fire jumped into the median along Interstate 35 in the Arbuckles north of Davis, forcing the temporary closing of the southbound lanes.

"The fire is all along the interstate blazing 15 to 20 feet in the air," said truck driver Kenneth Mack.

At least 31 homes were destroyed by wildfires that swept across Logan County on Tuesday, Ashwood said. Much of central Oklahoma has not seen measurable rainfall for more than 50 days. Dry brush provided fuel for the fires and gusty winds spread flames and embers across the countryside.

Charles Thompson, an 84-year-old survivor of Pearl Harbor, sifted through the remains of the Logan County home he has lived in for 20 years.

"I'm kind of glad they wouldn't let me come down here last night," said Thompson. He said he was relieved he was seeing the devastation in the light of day.

His daughter, Debbie Shannon, was upset and angry that the blazes may have been started purposely.

"Pranks have taken away not just possessions, but dreams," she said.

Jack Carson, a spokesman for the state Department of Agriculture, said investigators believe many of the fires have been arsons, carelessly ignited by cigarettes, fireworks and other burning items thrown onto dry grass.

No deaths have been reported, but firefighters and residents across Oklahoma have been treated for heat exhaustion and smoke inhalation.

Thompson's neighbors, Dino and Carol Rubbio, were surprised when they saw their house still standing in the midst of charred destruction.

"I don't know how in the world that house got saved. It had to be a miracle," Dino Rubbio said.

Firefighters continued to monitor the area Wednesday, snuffing out hot spots and responding to reports of smoke.

"The main thing right now is they're still dealing with those hot areas that could flare up again, especially if the wind keeps picking up," Logan County Sheriff Craig Platt said.

The yards of several houses were the color of charcoal all the way up to sidewalks. One abandoned home was merely white chalky rubble with a blackened sheet tin roof over the top. Vinyl siding clung in limp strips to the side of a garage.

Crews in orange trucks worked on gravel roads that snaked through thick woods to replace utility poles burned in the fires.

Black patches of burned earth cut across pastures and through woodland in seemingly random patterns.

The fire destroyed five of six buildings at the Woodlands Equestrian Centre, including the home of owners David and Laura Harris.

"This is devastating," David Harris said, Not only was the Harris home destroyed, but the cross-country equestrian courses at the center were ruined as well. Harris' business hosts national equestrian competitions and gives daily riding lessons.

Harris' mother's house was spared, and he was able to save 11 horses and four dogs after scuffling with police to get back onto his property.

------ On the Net: Oklahoma Department of Agriculture: Federal Emergency Management Agency: