MIDWEST CITY, Okla. – A wind-whipped blaze that destroyed more than 50 homes in this Oklahoma City suburb was intentionally set, fire officials said Friday.
An area near a wrecker service where the fire started Thursday is frequented by teenagers from a nearby high school and investigators were looking into the possibility that they might have set the blaze, Midwest City Fire Marshal Jerry Lojka said.
Authorities have not identified any suspects or determined a motive, he said.
The fire, one of several statewide driven by strong winds and fueled by dry grass and brush, engulfed homes throughout east Oklahoma County, including in Midwest City and Choctaw. So far, more than 100 houses had burned down in the state and 49 people were injured, the Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management said.
Fire investigators were still trying to determine what caused the other fires.
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The battle against wildfires in western and central Oklahoma and across the state line in Texas eased Friday as 60 mph winds diminished, allowing evacuated residents to return to neighborhoods with charred homes, blackened vegetation and ruined cars. At least three people were killed in Texas.
The fires began Thursday afternoon along the Interstate 35, the main north-south highway through central Oklahoma. Parts of the highway reopened Friday after being closed for several hours.
Oklahoma Gov. Brad Henry declared a state of emergency for 31 central and southern Oklahoma communities, which allows state agencies to speed the delivery of needed resources. Texas Gov. Rick Perry on Friday asked FEMA to issue an emergency declaration that would provide federal assets and resources for 199 threatened counties.
Residents evacuated while the fires raged were allowed to return home. For Sammetra Christmon of Midwest City, there was only a blackened, smoking ruin where her home had been.
"The memories, the photos, this is the house I have worked all my life for," she said Friday as she and her family picked through the smoldering debris. Her 9-year-old daughter was taking it hard.
"She's devastated, just in tears this morning," Christmon said. "This is the only house she's ever known."
Water-dropping helicopters couldn't assist the ground effort Thursday because winds gusted to more than 60 mph in some areas.
"Anytime you have high winds and low humidity, it's just the perfect storm for wildfires, and that's what's happening here," Oklahoma Emergency Management Director Albert Ashwood said.
In northern and central Texas, blazes that began Thursday continued to race across thousands of parched acres Friday, overrunning the towns of Sunset and Stoneburg and forcing the temporary evacuations in several others.
Linda Freeman, who was told Thursday to evacuate her mobile home in Sunset, said she went to her son's house about 10 miles away where "he turned on the news, and I saw my home burning." On Friday, all that remained were the steel stairs that once led to her front door.
The town's fire chief, Alan Campbell, said nine homes had burned to the ground.
Montague County Sheriff Paul Cunningham said Friday that a woman died, possibly from a heart attack, after calling for an ambulance in a fire near Bowie on Thursday. WFAA-TV of Dallas-Fort Worth reported two other fire victims: the television station's former reporter, Matt Quinn, and his wife, Cathy. Their son was injured and was in fair condition at Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas, the station said.
The Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management said a firefighter helping battle a blaze in Lincoln County, northeast of Oklahoma City, was hospitalized with burns and another person was severely injured after losing control of a vehicle on a smoke-covered road in Stephens County in southern Oklahoma.
Other injuries ranged from minor to moderate, officials said.
At the Midwest City Community Center, where about 75 residents flocked after flames threatened their homes, Kanisha Busby waited for her parents to arrive. Their home, where she grew up, was destroyed but nobody was hurt.
"It's hard, but all that stuff is material things that can be replaced; lives can't be replaced," Busby said. Residents were given sufficient warning to evacuate, and her father also managed to save his dog, she said.
Susan Staggs, who lives near Midwest City, said Friday that she and her neighbors who gathered at an evacuation point Thursday night could see the glow of flames, but didn't know if their homes were being engulfed.
"After dark, you could just see the flames crossing the road," she said. "I had two cats in my house and my horse and goats were still there." Her home was spared, it turned out, because a pile of gravel and dirt from her neighbor's driveway project served as a firebreak. But the neighbor's home was lost.