Fires spread across dry Oklahoma

Tuesday, September 19th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

EDMOND, Okla. (AP) -- Wildfires fueled by dry brush and spread by strong winds destroyed several homes north of Edmond on Tuesday and closed roadways as firefighters across the parched state battled countless fires for the second straight day.

Dry cedar and blackjack oak trees exploded into large balls of flame. A section of Interstate 35 north of Oklahoma City was closed as the fire jumped the roadway and into the median.

One family could be seen using a garden hose to spray a tree near their home, while others used shovels to try to beat back the flames that licked at the dry grass.

"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 in a stream 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."

Firefighters were trying to make a stand against the blaze at the intersection of Interstate 35 and U.S. Highway 77. Dozens of people as far east as Langston were evacuated as a precaution, officials said.

Billowing black clouds of smoke made driving hazardous along I-35 and forced the closing of Oklahoma 77 in the Arbuckle Mountains in southern Oklahoma, where officials evacuated a camp after a fire that began burning on Friday continued to rage unchecked.

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.

A local pizza restaurant and local residents provided food for the children and a nearby Wal-Mart store provided ice and water.

None of the children were injured and seemed to be taking the excitement in strike, Beck said.

Firefighters from the U.S. Forest Service are to begin arriving Wednesday to help battle the blazes, Gov. Frank Keating's office said. The Federal Emergency Management Agency made funds available Tuesday afternoon to help Oklahoma fight the wildfires.

"Our resources are stretched to the limit," said Jack Carson, state Agriculture Department spokesman.

Albert Ashwood, state director of emergency management, said he had heard of 100 fires across the state, but said officials at the state emergency operations center were focusing on just three: the ones north of Edmond, another set near Bristow and another blaze in the Arbuckle Mountains.

The emergency center was being staffed by members of several federal and state agencies.

Ashwood said the first elements of Forest Service crews from the Southern Division in Atlanta are to arrive Wednesday.

"We will work with these ground crews to assess the situation and dispatch them to the areas they are needed the most," he said.

He said they would assist fire crews from local fire departments and the state forestry division.

Ashwood said the center will provide daily updates on damages and sizes of fires but that he had not been able to put together the information by early Tuesday evening.

"If the winds don't die down you're going to talk about fighting these fires for some time," Ashwood said.

Oklahoma City fire Maj. Brian Stanaland said there were 21 fires in the city area and cautioned people to use extreme caution when putting out cigarettes.

"It's a tinder box out there," he said. "The conditions are so ripe for fire."

Authorities don't know the source on most of the fires but believe discarded cigarettes may be responsible for some.

The Oklahoma Highway Patrol shut down 31/2 miles of Oklahoma 33, just north of the junction with Oklahoma 48 in Creek County just west of Tulsa.

Three fires were reportedly burning out of control in Creek County, including two fires near the highway 33 and 48 intersection.

Another fire west of Oklahoma 48 sent smoke in the air that could be seen from five miles away.

A grass fire near Lindsay Tuesday morning destroyed a few structures, said Lindsay firefighter Joe Huckby.

"It hasn't got any better," he said. "I don't think they've made any progress."

"The conditions are bad," Carson said. "You have low humidity, you have wind, you have all the elements for disastrous fires."

The Oklahoma Highway Patrol shut down U.S. Highway 77 two miles north of the Carter and Murray county lines because of a grass fire in the Arbuckle Mountains.

Park officials and troopers were shutting down the exit ramps on I-35 and entrances to the Turner Falls park.

"We're trying to get them some resources right now, but it's pretty tough," said Pat McDowell, assistant director of the state Agriculture Department's forestry division.

Carson, who recently returned from Montana, said the conditions here mirror those in Montana, Idaho and other western states that are having problems with grass fires.

"It's just exactly like it was when I got to Montana," he said. "They were out of control then, and they are out of control now."

The weather finally helped the effort in Montana. Firefighters were able to get things under control when the state received rain and snow.

"If we hadn't received rain and snow, that situation wouldn't be under control the way it is today. There wasn't anything in Montana that we could throw on those fires to get them under control"

The dry conditions have prompted forestry officials to issue a burn ban in all 77 counties which prohibits outdoor burning.

A wildfire near Glencoe in Payne County on Monday destroyed at least four houses and charred dozens of acres of trees and ranch property. Flames spilled over highways in the area and threatened more homes, but no injuries were reported.