Arson suspected as wildfires force Oklahoma towns to evacuate
LUTHER, Okla. (AP) - While residents of one Oklahoma town sifted through their charred belongings Saturday to salvage what they could after a roaring wildfire that may have been deliberately set, residents in two other towns were being ordered to evacuate their homes.
The fire near Luther, which is about 25 miles northeast of Oklahoma City, destroyed nearly five dozen homes and other buildings before firefighters were able to gain some measure of control Saturday.
The fire was one of several burning Saturday in Oklahoma, where a severe drought has parched the landscape.
The fires include a large one in Creek County, in northeastern Oklahoma, that officials said had claimed about 78 square miles, and another about 35 miles to the west in Payne County. Emergency management officials ordered residents of Mannford, in Creek County, and Glencoe, in Payne County, to leave their homes, according to Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management spokeswoman Keli Cain.
Cain said no serious injuries had been reported.
Authorities suspect the fire near Luther may have been intentionally set, while the cause of the others was undetermined. The Oklahoma County sheriff's department said it was looking for someone in a black pickup truck who was seen throwing newspapers out a window after setting them ablaze.
Department spokeswoman Mary Myers said there were "no arrests, no suspects" but deputies were "working around the clock" to find anyone responsible.
Gov. Mary Fallin toured Luther Saturday, hugging residents whose homes and belongings were destroyed by the fire that swept through treetops on 24 mph winds.
"It's heartbreaking to see families that have lost so much," Fallin said after talking with some who were milling around the still-smoking debris that had been their homes. "I gave them a hug, told them I was sorry."
The fire burned just over 4 square miles, including an area near the Turner Turnpike, which carries Interstate 44 between Oklahoma City and Tulsa. The superhighway was briefly closed Friday and traffic was diverted onto old Route 66, the cross-country highway that brought Luther a glimmer of life before the interstate bypassing the town was built in the 1950s.
In Creek County, county Commissioner Newt Stephens asked residents to be patient and to stay away from the flames raging in the northern part of the county. "Keep the gawkers out, and those that are wanting to go in and look. I know it's a big deal, but it's just not safe to do that," Stephens told reporters.
"When the wind comes up and a big flame comes across and them cedar trees look like dynamite going off, it gets scary out there."
On Saturday, those returning to their homes found charred timbers poking from the debris and the burned out shells of refrigerators, washers and dryers.
"It makes me feel sad," said Victoria Landavazo, clutching a young child in her arms. "It's all gone. All of our family pictures, everything was there."
Her neighbors, Douglas and Rebecca Kolar, spoke with their insurance agent in front of the remains of their home. Rebecca Kolar saw footage of it burning the night before on television.
"They thought the fire was going behind" the neighborhood, she said. "And then the wind shifted, and it was too quick. We couldn't do anything."
She said she was able to gather her children, three dogs and some family photos before her house and six others on the street caught fire and burned.
Tracy Streeper was working in Oklahoma City, about 40 miles southwest, when she learned the fire was approaching. Caught in traffic, it took her a long time to reach home and then, "once we got here, we had maybe 30 minutes."
She grabbed a few clothes, medicine and her three dogs and left quickly.
"Your adrenaline is running. You're pumped up," Streeper said. "You could just see a wall of flames coming this way. Everything was on fire."
Casey Strahan said he went outside after power went out in the home he rents about 4:30 p.m. He looked south and saw smoke rising in the distance. He thought it was moving away from him until police ordered him to leave. He rushed through the house, grabbing clothing, photos and a computer as he went. When he returned Saturday, he found the house burned to the ground.
"I just never thought it was really going to get us," said Strahan, a softball and girls basketball coach at Luther High School.
The summer in Oklahoma is shaping up to be much like last year's, with little rainfall, low humidity and temperatures exceeding 110 degrees in many locations. The Oklahoma Forestry Commission said that means it also could be another bad year for wildfires.
"I think it's going to be right up there, (as among the worst) in memories, at least," said Michelle Finch-Walker, an agency spokeswoman. She predicted the number of fires could end up being similar to last year, when the agency fought about 1,800 wildfires.
Utility crews that had shut off service to much of Luther spent part of Saturday morning restoring power to homes that weren't damaged - though Fallin said much of the town was still covered by an evacuation order because of the danger from downed power lines and other infrastructure.
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