Wildfire spares Oklahoma town, plant but still not contained
OKLAHOMA CITY – Firefighters struggled to contain a large wildfire in northwestern Oklahoma Wednesday, although they kept it from ravaging a small town and infiltrating an iodine-manufacturing plant. Some buildings were destroyed and one firefighter suffered heat exhaustion.
Other fires burned Wednesday in Kansas and elsewhere in Oklahoma, fueled by dry, windy conditions.
The largest fire in Oklahoma has burned 86 square miles near the border with Kansas — the same area where blazes last month scorched hundreds of square miles. The fire was sparked Tuesday by "arcing power lines" that touched the dry ground because of gusting winds, Oklahoma Forestry Services Director George Geissler said.
"During high winds, the power lines will start galloping between the poles," Geissler said. "They're actually whipping around. It looks like a jump rope."
Authorities issued a voluntary evacuation order Tuesday afternoon for the Oklahoma town of Freedom, about 170 miles northwest of Oklahoma City. Assisted by an overnight shift in wind, crews were able to keep the fire from jumping the Cimarron River and directly threatening the town's 300 residents.
But Wednesday's forecast looked tricky for firefighters hoping to contain the blaze.
"We're expecting wind gusts of 40, 45 mph," said Woodward County Emergency Management Director Matt Lehenbauer. "That's going to go all through the day and probably not starting to subside until sundown. That's a huge concern."
Structures have been lost in the northwest Oklahoma fire and in another blaze in central Oklahoma, but damage assessments are still underway, Oklahoma Forestry Services spokeswoman Hannah Anderson said.
There were no injuries reported apart from the firefighter who went to the hospital with heat exhaustion, Anderson said.
In Kansas, other fires have burned 18 square miles of rangeland. Ben Bauman, spokesman for the Kansas Adjutant General's Office, said two homes, one mobile home and at least eight outbuildings were destroyed Tuesday. Residents of several rural communities were urged to leave their homes before the blazes were brought mostly under control.
Tuesday's powerful winds also spawned a 100-mile-wide dust storm in the Texas Panhandle with winds of up to 60 mph spreading dirt picked up from Colorado and Kansas.
The Oklahoma town of Freedom is about 5 miles southwest of the spot where a fire in March spread from Oklahoma into Kansas, scorching an estimated 574 square miles of rural land.
Tuesday's blaze had threatened homes and an iodine-manufacturing plant but firefighters were able to protect the facility by parking their firetrucks around its perimeter, Lehenbauer said. The flames jumped over the vehicles and burned all the way around the plant before the winds shifted, he said.
Crews protected some homes using the same tactic, he said.
"A lot of the guys were just surrounding the wagons around the homes as the fire jumped over and around them," he said.
Volunteer firefighters in that area also rescued a calf as the fire headed toward a pasture, firefighter Landon Cates told The Associated Press in an email.
"There was a pen full of cattle that we did save but this little guy must have got out of the corral and couldn't get back to safety," Cates said, adding that the calf was reunited with the other cattle once the fire had passed through.
In central Oklahoma, firefighters set up containment lines Tuesday around another fire north of Luther, about 25 miles northeast of Oklahoma City, and officials advised residents to evacuate their homes.
That fire was about 80 percent contained as of Wednesday morning, Anderson said.