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Wind-driven fires destroy OK homes

Faith community provides emotional, spiritual support as fires destroy more than 100 buildings.

BY BOYCE BOWDON | OKLAHOMA CITY | April 10, 2009

While Oklahoma and Texas firefighters battle fires that keep flaring up, Oklahoma officials are assessing damage caused by wildfires that raged across the state Thursday. Meanwhile, the faith community is observing Holy Week by provide emotional and spiritual support to people who are suffering.

State emergency management officials estimate that the numerous simultaneous fires that were fueled by extremely dry conditions and driven by winds gusting at more than 40 mph injured 49 people.

One Lincoln County firefighter suffered major burns and is in Integris Baptist Medical Center in Oklahoma City, where he is listed in stable condition.

At least 138 homes and six businesses were destroyed. Officials say the largest property losses were in south central Oklahoma and in eastern Oklahoma County, where more than 100 structures were destroyed.

In Midwest City, 34 homes were destroyed and 60 others were damaged. Midwest City Fire Marshal Jerry Lojka says flames Thursday were leaping from rooftop to rooftop and firefighters didn’t have time to peel back walls and soak everything to make sure hot spots were out.

“We just did what we could and moved on to the next one,” he explained. “It’s probably going to take us all day today to make sure everything is out.”

Fires swept through two square miles east of Lake Stanley Draper in southeast Oklahoma City. Deputy Fire Chief Cecil Clays says crews are still battling hot spots in wooded areas. “When the wind is blowing 30 to 40 miles an hour, embers just blow from one spot to another no matter how much water you use.”

In Carter County in southern Oklahoma, 50,000 acres burned out-of-control, says Ed Reed, director of the county emergency management. He says 13 fires caused hundreds of evacuations in the area.

A firefighter lost his home while fighting the fires in Ratliff City. In Fox, the fire department was destroyed while firefighters were battling wildfires. “They lost a truck, records, tools and everything,” says Reed.

Fires closed portions of several highways, including I-35, for several hours Thursday. Friday morning residents—not knowing whether their homes would be standing or not—began returning to several towns that were evacuated, but some still have not been authorized to return.

The faith community responded quickly to the needs of the hundreds of people left homeless by the fires. Several congregations in various parts of the state, including Healdton, Choctaw, Marietta and Nicoma Park, opened their buildings as community shelters.

In Choctaw, a suburb of Oklahoma City, where at least 17 homes were destroyed, volunteers at The United Methodist Church are phoning members of their congregation to see who needs help. “Besides assessing needs and ministering to our members,” says the pastor, the Rev. Charla Gwaltney, “we are exploring ways we can join with others in a community-wide effort to help anyone who needs assistance.”


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Survivors struggle, help others


More links on Wildfires

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