Suspected Arson Fire Contained in Small Northeastern Okla. Town

January 5, 2006

Firefighters contained a grass fire that destroyed an abandoned schoolhouse and a home in Shamrock, a small northeastern Oklahoma town, while officials in Texas and New Mexico also worked to keep fires under control amid dry, windy conditions.

An air tanker repeatedly dropped fire retardant on the Oklahoma blaze on Jan. 3, said Loren Andrews, assistant fire chief in nearby Drum. The fire was likely set by arsonists because it began near a highway and other fires in the area appeared to have been set by people near roadways, she said.

Shamrock Mayor Melissa Lee, sitting on a four-wheeler in front of the smoldering ruins of the vacant destroyed home, said the school that burned dated back to at least the 1920s and many in the town of about 250 had graduated from there.

“It’s a little town, but it’s got a lot of history,” she said.

Grass fires started by as little as a spark from a car or an arcing power line have burned more than 600,000 acres across a drought-stricken stretch of Oklahoma, Texas and New Mexico in the past week-and-a-half. The fires have destroyed at least 450 homes and killed four people.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency announced it had approved requests from Texas, Oklahoma and New Mexico for assistance from the nation’s Disaster Relief Fund to aid in firefighting efforts.

In Texas, firefighters continued checking major blazes that appeared mostly contained as the threat of flare-ups and new fires lingered in windy, dry conditions.

They contained 60 percent of a fire west of San Angelo that had scorched about 40,000 acres in Irion and Reagan counties. A 6,000-acre blaze in Erath County that had become active and was threatening about seven homes early Jan. 3 also calmed by nightfall, the Texas Forest Service said.

Since Nov. 1 in Oklahoma, grass fires have consumed about 331,000 acres, destroyed 200 homes and businesses and been blamed for the death of one person. Authorities said they fear that dry, windy and unseasonably warm conditions will spark more fires until the parched region gets some rain.

“We’re needing a little help from Mother Nature to put this thing to bed. We need some rain,” said Michelle Finch, a fire information officer with the Oklahoma Forestry Division.

In New Mexico, firefighters worked to put out what remained of fires that blackened more than 53,000 acres in the southeastern section of the state, destroying 10 homes and three barns west of Hobbs.

A National Weather Service “red flag warning” was still in effect, meaning that heat, low humidity and wind could allow wildfires to spread quickly. Highs in the upper 70s to mid-80s were forecast in the region experiencing one of its worst droughts in 50 years, and winds could reach 20 mph, meteorologist Jesse Moore said.

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