Fires spread anew across dry state

Wednesday, September 20th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) -- Exhausted firefighters kept a wary vigil over dozens of smoldering wildfires in Oklahoma and awaited Wednesday's scheduled arrival of a U.S. Forest Service firefighting team that will join in the battle.

At least 100 fires were reported Tuesday, said Albert Ashwood, state director of emergency management. Flames scorched hundreds of acres of fields and forests and damaged or destroyed at least 18 homes near Edmond.

As night fell, flames from the fires lit up the horizon. Ashwood said the arrival of Forest Service crews from the Southern Division in Atlanta will help local efforts.

"The conditions are bad," said Jack Carson, a spokesman for the state Agriculture Department. "You have low humidity, you have wind, you have all the elements for disastrous fires."

Much of central Oklahoma has not seen measurable rainfall for more than 50 days. Dry brush provided fuel for the fires and gusty southerly winds spread flames rapidly across the countryside.

A fire that ignited on Friday in the Arbuckle Mountains in south central Oklahoma continued to burn on Tuesday, forcing officials to evacuate a camp.

Clara Beck, church secretary at First Baptist Church in Davis, said between 300-400 children aged 8 to 13 from Plano, Texas, were evacuated from Camp Classen.

"They contacted us from the camp and asked if they could bring them up here," Beck said. "They're going to try to get them back home if they can get some transportation."

Officials said the fireline in the mountains was 10 miles long.

As many as 40 fire departments were working on the fire.

"We're concentrating our efforts on the Guthrie fire as well as the Arbuckle Mountain fire and the fire near Bristow," Ashwood said.

The Oklahoma National Guard and the Civil Air Patrol fought the blaze from the air. The Civil Air Patrol flew more than 15 flight hours spotting fires and helping with inter-agency communications.

Meanwhile, investigators planned to begin looking into the cause of a wildfire near Edmond to determine whether arson was the cause.

"This was in fact arson," said Maj. Brian Stanaland, Oklahoma City fire spokesman. "The fire was set."

"We're going to start by examining this from the air," State Fire Marshal Luke Tallant said. "It's going to be a long, hot, dirty process."

Investigators found fireworks near the fire's starting point, but the fireworks may not be connected to the fire, Tallant said.

At least three firefighters were treated for heat-related injuries and three children from a daycare center were treated for smoke inhalation.

"This is the worst that we've had in the 12 years I've been here," said Edmond resident Richard Gilbertson, who sprayed a fence alongside the road in an effort to douse flames that spread across a nearby pasture. "This is a lot of kindling that went up."

Robert and Crystal Jones could only watch as fire burned into a northeast Oklahoma County trailer park, destroying their two mobile homes.

"As long as my wife and my kids are all right, I'm fine,"

Robert Jones said. "Half the neighborhood went up."

Parts of Interstate 35 were shut down because the thick smoke made driving hazardous.

In the Guthrie area, I-35 was closed for almost 31/2 hours. The interstate was also closed near Oklahoma 77 in the Arbuckle Mountains.

Federal firefighting funds were made available by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Under the authorization, FEMA will pay 70 percent of the state's eligible firefighting costs that are above more than $235,000.

Wildfires were not limited to central and southern Oklahoma. A fire in the Freedom Hills area of Creek County near Bristow had consumed more than three square miles.

It took about three hours for firefighters to get a blaze under control at Osage Hills just north of downtown Tulsa. The fire burned dozens of hay bales, several fields and one unoccupied mobile home.

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