Oklahoma official says blaze intentionally set - KFDA - NewsChannel 10 / Amarillo News, Weather, Sports

Oklahoma official says blaze intentionally set

By SEAN MURPHY, Associated Press

MIDWEST CITY, Okla. - Fire officials say a blaze that destroyed more than 50 homes in the Oklahoma City suburb of Midwest City was intentionally set.

Midwest City Fire Marshal Mike Lojka says some teenagers were observed in the area where the fire began Thursday afternoon near a wrecker service and they are believed to have started it. Authorities have not been able to identify the suspects of determine why they set it.

The fire quickly spread in tinder-dry grass and brush and engulfed homes throughout east Oklahoma County as high winds fanned flames.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP's earlier story is below.

MIDWEST CITY, Okla. (AP) - Firefighters mopped up hot spots Friday from wind-driven wildfires that injured at least 34 people in western and central Oklahoma and destroyed more than 100 homes.

At least three people were killed across the state line in Texas.

The fires began Thursday afternoon along the Interstate 35, the main north-south highway through central Oklahoma. They continued to burn past nightfall, fueled by ferocious winds and an abundance of dry, early spring grass and brush. But lighter winds in the region made things easier for firefighters Friday in both states.

"We have in excess of 100 homes that have been destroyed statewide," Emergency Management Director Albert Ashwood said Friday morning. Officials said the Midwest City fire apparently started at a wrecker service, but the exact cause of it and other fires was still under investigation.

Interstate 35 was back open Friday after being closed for several hours in various locations because of the fires.

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 was asking FEMA to issue an emergency declaration that would provide federal assets and resources for 199 threatened counties.

Residents who were 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 of winds that 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," Ashwood said.

In northern Texas, blazes raced across thousands of parched acres Thursday, overrunning the towns of Sunset and Stoneburg and forcing the temporary evacuations in several others.

Linda Freeman was returning from work Thursday night when the 64-year-old was told to evacuate her mobile home in Sunset. She 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.

Two other deaths were reported near Montague, about 80 miles northwest of Dallas. WFAA-TV of Dallas-Fort Worth said the victims were 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 reported.

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.

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Associated Press writers Murray Evans in Oklahoma City; Angela K. Brown in Fort Worth, Texas; Betsy Blaney in Lubbock, Texas; Schuyler Dixon in Sunset, Texas, and Linda Stewart-Ball in Dallas contributed to this report.

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