Wildfires Destroy Homes in Oklahoma, Texas

March 15, 2011

Cass Smith’s friends dug through the rubble of his fire-ravaged home in Harrah, Okla., and were able to salvage a few valuables, including the rings he and his wife exchanged on their wedding day and another ring that belonged to his father.

“You don’t realize how much nothing is until you have nothing,” said Smith, a city council member in the Oklahoma City suburb of Harrah, where 30 homes were destroyed on Mar. 11 by wind-driven wildfires.

Gov. Mary Fallin and U.S. Rep. James Lankford, R-Okla., toured the area on Saturday. The governor urged homeowners to contact relief organizations and take advantage of other emergency services while they wait for their insurance claims.

A total of 49 homes were destroyed in Oklahoma, and eight others were gutted in separate fires in Texas.

Officials said no major fires continued to burn, although there were still some hotspots and smoky areas. Thousands of acres were charred in both states, but no major injuries were reported.

Texas Forest Service spokeswoman April Saginor described Saturday as a day for mop-up operations. All fires in the state were expected to be fully contained by evening.

“Today is a day where we could go in and get everything cleaned up from yesterday,” she said. “We don’t expect extreme fire danger for the next few days.”

In one Harrah neighborhood near the junior high school, the damage was inconsistent, with fire destroying one house but leaving the home next door untouched.

Even though his home was destroyed, Harrah resident Don Hatchett was happy that his wife and six grandchildren were OK.

“You just make the best of it,” Hatchett said. “We got the grandkids out. We were lucky.”

Unseasonably warm temperatures and strong winds helped fuel Friday’s fires. Thirty fires broke out in Oklahoma, with the worst damage occurring in the Oklahoma City suburbs of Harrah and Choctaw. Thirty-nine homes were lost there, while six were destroyed in Goldsby and four in the Shawnee area. Like much of the state, the burned areas have been in a prolonged drought.

Michelann Ooten, a spokeswoman for the Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management, said while firefighters continued to work in some hotspots Saturday, it was “nothing like what we were doing yesterday.”

Winds with gusts of 40 mph to 50 mph had died down, and cooler temperatures had helped ease the situation, she said.

Ooten said officials were forcing on damage assessments Saturday because by the time the fires were under control Friday, it was dark.

“Today with sunlight assisting them, they’ll be able to do a far more intensive assessment,” she said.

The Texas Forest Service said its firefighters responded to 25 fires that burned more than 14,000 acres Friday. In the past week, more than 20,000 acres have been burned.

The forest service said six homes were destroyed Friday in a fire south of Jacksboro, which is about 90 miles northwest of Dallas. Two other homes were lost in a 6-acre fire southeast of Granbury. But many other homes that were threatened, including as many as 200 northeast of Walnut Springs, have been saved.

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