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At least 18 blazes torch Oklahoma; one nears record size

August 05, 2012|By Matt Pearce

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- At least 18 wildfires raged in Oklahoma on Sunday as  firefighters battled the consequences of a severe drought that shows no signs of letting up.

One of those blazes, the Freedom Hill fire, has consumed at least 40 buildings south of Tulsa and grown to 58,320 acres. That is “close to a record,”  Oklahoma Forestry Services spokeswoman Michelle Finch-Walker told The Times.

If it gets much bigger, Oklahoma would join Colorado and New Mexico as states that have seen record-breaking blazes in a historically hot and dry summer. Blazes in Oklahoma -- already under a state of emergency -- have torched 78,330 acres since Friday.

“It looks like we’re going to be in this wildland fire business for the month,” Finch-Walker said.

Some of the evacuation orders have been lifted, but from the scorched shells of houses to wooden utility poles burning to the ground, many Oklahomans remained without electricity or out of their homes. Authorities said 113 people stayed in emergency shelters last night.

One fire was 8,000 acres before strong winds fanned it, causing the closure of Highway 9 and destroying 25 buildings. An updated acre total wasn't available.

Local fire departments were also battling a blaze outside Oklahoma City that destroyed 56 buildings in the town of Luther -- a number that Finch-Walker said were from Friday and was likely to grow once officials got a chance to survey the damage.

“The real emphasis has been on fighting the fires and getting the numbers, and acres will come later,” Finch-Walker said.

The Red Cross and Salvation Army have been on hand. Keli Cain, a spokeswoman for the Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management, told The Times there was hope in a few areas.

“We know that some of the fires that have been going on this weekend are kind of in the mop-up stages. They’re just fighting making sure everything is out,” Cain said.

But strong winds have caused the fire to hopscotch from acre to acre, causing trouble for the firefighters using bulldozers to create soil barriers against which a wildfire can burn out.

“Even with the rain last night, that’s really not going to put a dent in the drought conditions in Oklahoma,” Cain said. “We’re expecting to see more fires in the coming days and weeks.”

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