Windy Weather Flares Grass Fires in Oklahoma

Windy weather fueled deadly grass fires in Oklahoma Thursday, and forecasters predicted more dry, blustery weather in the region for days to come.

The fires sent a large column of smoke through Oklahoma County, as hundreds of acres of land were consumed. Four people died Wednesday in the fires. Homes were threatened and two people were being treated for smoke inhalation, firefighters said.

Video shot from news helicopters showed flames consuming what appeared to be a farm house. Horses could be seen running from the fire and residents were leaving the area.

There were no immediate reports of additional homes lost or serious injuries, said fire Maj. Brian Stanaland as a water-dropping helicopter arrived on the scene.

Fire engines on site sprayed water on the leading edges of the fires in an attempt to keep the flames, which were being fueled by wind gusts of up to 30 mph, from hitting homes.

Severe drought, wind gusts of 40 mph and temperatures reaching the low 80s earlier this week set the stage for grass fires which have been blamed for four deaths in Texas and Oklahoma. Authorities believe they were mostly set by people ignoring fire bans and burning trash, shooting fireworks or throwing out cigarettes.

The flames ripped across nearly 20,000 acres in the two states. At least 73 blazes were reported in Texas over two days. The National Weather Service predicted a return of hazardous conditions on Saturday — prompting fears that New Year's fireworks could spark another round of fires.

In Texas, Cross Plains, a working-class town about 115 miles west of Fort Worth, was the hardest-hit community. Two of the state's three deaths were reported there as about 90 homes and several other buildings, including a church, were destroyed on Tuesday.

One was Mattie Faye Wilson, 67, who taught several generations of Cross Plains first-graders before her retirement, said Debbie Gosnell, a city administrator. "She was a really sweet woman," Gosnell said.

Another victim was Maudie Sheppard, a bedridden 89-year-old living with her son. He rushed home to try and save her, but it was too late, neighbors said.

Remnants of several of the burned-out houses still smoldered Wednesday evening, blanketing the air with a smoky haze and burning odor. Texas Gov. Rick Perry planned to survey the Cross Plains damage by air Thursday.

Another woman died in Cooke County, near the Texas-Oklahoma line, after she apparently fell while helping her husband pour water on the grass around their house.

The Texas Division of Emergency Management had said there were four deaths in the state, but Perry spokeswoman Kathy Walt said Thursday those figures were wrong and there were only three.

The fourth death was reported in Oklahoma. Kelly Tiger, 69, collapsed and died while trying to battle flames on his family's property in Hughes County. Burns covered 70 percent of his body but doctors determined that he died of a heart attack.

"I believe my father was trying to get back to us," his son, Kelly Tiger Jr., 47, said. "He saw the winds shift and the fire coming at our house. That's when he started running toward us."

In all, the grass fires destroyed about 120 homes across Texas and about 75 in Oklahoma, authorities said.

Among the Oklahoma fires was one in Seminole County that burned more than 9,000 acres and 50 homes, said Herbert Gunter, the county's emergency management director.

"There's not anything left to burn," Gunter said Thursday. "The town this morning looks like fog, there's so much smoke."

This year has been the fifth-driest year on record for north and central Texas, where most of the fires happened. The annual rainfall in the Dallas-Fort Worth area is about 16 inches less than the average of about 35 inches. Oklahoma has received about 24 inches of rain this year, about 12 inches less than normal.

Some residents of Mustang, just west of Oklahoma City, returned to their homes Wednesday to pick through what remained. Five homes were destroyed as the fire raced across 400 acres.

Pat Hankins watched as friends and family members pulled partially destroyed items from his home and put them on the lawn. Inside, heaps of blackened insulation lay on top of a bed in a back bedroom lit by sunlight that poured through holes in the ceiling.

"We were planning on dying here," said Hankins, 62, of the home he has shared with his wife for 13 years. "We loved this piece of property. Whether we'll rebuild, I just don't know."

Eight homes were lost in a fast-moving grass fire in Choctaw, east of Oklahoma City. Among those destroyed was the home of Kenneth Franks, who had lived there since 1976.

The fire ripped through with such intensity that the aluminum cylinder heads of his wife's car melted into a pool that later hardened in front of the car. The dashboard dissolved around what was left of the steering wheel.

"When me and my wife got married 23 years ago, we had this house and a couple of cars," Franks said. "We have less now than we did then."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.