Wildfires still burn in Oklahoma, Texas

Wednesday, January 4, 2006

NORMAN, Okla. – National Weather Service officials are warning of continued fire dangers throughout Oklahoma and Texas due to serious drought conditions.

More than 220 homes and businesses have been destroyed by fire in Oklahoma since Nov. 1, according to the Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management. Wildfires in 29 of the state’s 77 counties have claimed more than 360,000 acres. Meanwhile, officials in Texas say 238 homes and 254,555 acres have been lost to wildfires in that state since Dec. 26.

Unseasonably warm weather and wind gusts of up to 40 mph have combined to make an already dangerous situation worse across the Southern Plains, which also include parts of Kansas, Colorado and New Mexico, said Jason Levit of the National Storm Prediction Center in Norman.

“The region also continues to remain in a severe to extreme drought situation,” Levit said. “Dry surface vegetation will continue to serve as an excellent fuel for any fires that develop.”

Some dry areas, such as the Rocky Mountains and Great Lakes, may soon see some much-needed rain. Levit says the already fire-ravaged Southern Plains will have no such luck, however, and people should be aware of the severe danger that will continue to threaten the region.

In Oklahoma, state authorities and the National Guard have established a command post in Shawnee, about 40 miles east of Oklahoma City, where they have been joined by officials from the U.S. Forest Service, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and the National Weather Service.

The state was granted access to relief from the Federal Emergency Management Agency on Dec. 28, said Gov. Brad Henry. The Governor requested fire management grants to help cover expenses related to the wildfires that began the previous day. FEMA’s approval means funds are now available to local governments and volunteer fire departments that responded to the blazes in Hughes and Seminole counties. Requests involving nine other counties were approved in the days that followed.

Fires hit the northeastern part of Oklahoma City, the state’s capital and largest city, on Sunday. Fires were said to have destroyed 20 homes over the weekend.

A National Guard helicopter and firefighters from North Carolina were sent to battle a blaze near the town of Davis, in south-central Oklahoma, on Tuesday. Meanwhile, the BIA sent two airplanes to help fight a fire near Eufaula, in eastern Oklahoma. Three other BIA aircraft aided crews fighting fires near Wewoka, in central Oklahoma, and additional fires were reported near Knowles, Oklahoma City, Ponca City and Tishmingo.

Authorities said additional National Guard helicopters and Forest Service planes are available to battle other fires as they break out. In addition to teams from North Carolina, other firefighters from Alabama, Florida, and Tennessee have arrived and are being stationed throughout the state.

The Oklahoma State Medical Examiner’s Office said one man has died from injuries sustained from recent wildfires. A 68-year-old Hughes County man died Dec. 28 from thermal burns and smoke inhalation. The death is in addition to that of a 68-year-old Carter County woman who died last month while trying to use a garden hose to save her home from being consumed by flames.

The governor’s office said the state continues to await word on a request for a federal disaster declaration made Friday. A disaster declaration by President George W. Bush would qualify Oklahoma for federal funds to place firefighters ahead of where blazes are burning, and would provide temporary housing assistance and low-interest loans for those whose homes or businesses have been destroyed.

Texas authorities say they have 92 aircraft and 650 state workers working to fight fires, and have been joined by crews from Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Tennessee, and Wisconsin. The U.S. Forest Service is also helping the state to handle the emergency.

Despite efforts, wildfires on Monday claimed nearly the entire town of Ringgold, destroying 45 buildings that comprised about 80 percent of the town.

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This article features first-hand journalism by Wikinews members. See the collaboration page for more details.