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Oklahoma residents survey wildfire damage; 1 dead

Published: Tuesday, May 6, 2014 12:02 a.m. CDT • Updated: Tuesday, May 6, 2014 12:11 a.m. CDT
Caption
(AP photo)
Dustin Ellison attempts to beat down a roadside hot spot with a mat from his car Monday in Guthrie, Okla. High winds and temperatures close to 100 degrees are making it a challenging fire to control. Firefighters worked Monday to battle the large wildfire in central Oklahoma that destroyed at least six homes and left at least one person dead after a controlled burn spread out of control.

GUTHRIE, Okla. – Residents in an Oklahoma community where a wildfire killed one person, burned thousands of acres and destroyed at least six homes returned to survey the damage Monday as firefighters continued to battle the stubborn blaze.

The fire in Guthrie, about 35 miles north of Oklahoma City, went awry Sunday and swept through the parched countryside with wind gusts at 31 mph. Fire officials said Monday afternoon that the blaze was about 75 percent contained and they are investigating to determine whether any criminal conduct occurred when it was set. A burn ban was not in place at the time.

Forecasters say the fire danger will get worse before it gets better, though, with the weather to stay hot and windy. Temperatures are to reach 100 on Tuesday with daytime wind gusts to steadily grow stronger.

Authorities said the man who died in the fire Sunday night had refused to leave his mobile home. Guthrie Fire Chief Eric Harlow said 37 firefighters have been treated for heat-related issues.

A firefighter was struck in the chest when ammunition went off inside a structure, although it's not clear what hit him, said Stan May, a spokesman for the Oklahoma Incident Management Team. The firefighter was treated at a hospital and released, May said.

The fire has burned 3,000 to 3,500 acres, Harlow said. In all, at least 30 buildings have been destroyed including the six homes and that number could rise as officials evaluate the damage, he said.

Officials also are assessing damage from some smaller wildfires in the state, including one in Pawnee County that claimed 1,500 acres and was threatening about 25 homes.

Gov. Mary Fallin declared a state of emergency Monday for counties throughout Oklahoma and a burn ban for 36 counties mostly in western and south-central Oklahoma. Logan County, where the large wildfire started, is included in the ban.

"One thing I know about Oklahomans is we're strong. We're resilient," Fallin said after visiting with emergency management officials earlier in the day.

A pair of water-lifting helicopters was dispatched to the scene and Fallin said she had asked the federal government to arrange for a large air tanker to be sent in from Arizona.

About 1,000 people were evacuated from their homes on Sunday but many returned to the rural area Monday to survey the damage.

Rachel Hudson, 32, lost her home in the blaze. And around the time the fire arrived, her daughter Mariah was in a car accident. The teenager will need surgery.

"That was all going on at the same time our house was burning down," Hudson said by telephone as she sought shelter provided by the local American Red Cross. The home where she lived with her daughter, her ex-husband and her mother was not insured.

"I'm scared. I don't know what I'm going to do," she said, starting to cry. "We lost everything."

Three of Mariah's friends from school spent Monday picking through the rubble and salvaged some dishes, antiques, tools and knickknacks.

"We're just trying to help out as much as we can," Shelby Cremeens said.

Although Logan County did not have a burn ban in place Sunday when the blaze broke out, Oklahoma Forestry Services spokeswoman Hannah Anderson said conditions were ripe for a fire with a recent drought, high temperature readings and strong winds.

The same conditions were present Monday.

"We're just trying to put that thing out," Anderson said. "Weather always has an impact on fire behavior. With temperatures high and humidity so low, anything can spark a wildfire. We want the public to be vigilant: It's hot, it's dry and it's windy."

Karen Dilley and her sister Lorine Biggs surveyed damage to their parents' smoldering 160 acres Monday. Their 58-year-old house had been spared but firefighters were worried it might still be in danger.

"I hope my mom doesn't have to start over. She's too old for that," Dilley said.

Tony Ergang, 47, said he stayed as long as he could at the family's mobile home Sunday night before going to a hotel. He returned Monday to wait for insurance adjusters after the back of his home burned and the inside sustained smoke damage.

A home down the street from his was charred. Ergang said it was clear he was just fortunate.

"It's one of those things," he said. "It's like a tornado that tears through a house, leaving a napkin folded on the dining room table."

___

Associated Press writer Justin Juozapavicius contributed to this report from Tulsa.

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