Wind-whipped Oklahoma wildfires destroy homes

From left, Gayland Cannon, Eugene Hacker and Ron Ross wait at a gas station at SE108 and Hwy 9 after evacuating their homes in the area of SE 132nd and Cedar Lane as a wildfire burns through Cleveland County near Norman, Okla., Friday, Aug. 3, 2012. A wildfire stirred by high winds sweeping through rural woodlands just south of the Oklahoma City area has set at a number of homes on fire. AP Photo/The Oklahoman, Nate Billings

(AP) NOBLE, Okla. - A wildfire whipped by gusty, southerly winds swept through rural woodlands south of the Oklahoma City area Friday, burning several homes as firefighters struggled to contain it in 113-degree heat.

Oklahoma's emergency management officials said 25 structures had burned east of Noble, including a handful of homes. The sheriff's office directed residents of 75 to 100 houses to leave the area as flames spread through treetops. The evacuation area, south of Lake Thunderbird, is about 30 square miles.

The state Highway Patrol closed part of the main highway between Oklahoma City and Tulsa because of a fire that may have been deliberately set. Local deputies were looking into reports about passengers in a pickup truck who were seen throwing out newspapers that had been set on fire.

"I loaded the kids up, grabbed my dogs, and it didn't even look like I had time to load the livestock, so I just got out of there," said Bo Ireland, who lives a few miles from where the Noble-area fire started. "It looked to me that, if the wind shifted even a little bit, I would be in the path of that fire. It was just too close."

There were no immediate reports of injuries or livestock losses from the fires, which also charred the earth near Geary and Luther.

With the ongoing drought, high temperatures and gusty winds, it took little for fires to begin and spread — and there was little crews could do to fight them.

"It's difficult for the firefighters to get into the area because it's heavily wooded on either side of the smaller roads. When the winds are blowing 25 mph it just blows the embers and fireballs across the roads as if they weren't even there," said Jerry Lojka with the Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management.

At mid-afternoon Friday, the temperature at nearby Norman was 113. Winds were from the south and southwest at 14 mph, gusting to 24 mph.

"I can tell you the temperatures and the wind are not helping the situation at all. Some homes have been lost in the fire unfortunately, but we don't know how many," said Meghan McCormick, a spokeswoman for the Cleveland County Sheriff's office.

Russell Moore, 53, who lives in the Noble area, said he was outside in his yard when a sheriff's deputy drove down the road and told people to leave. He and his son went to a shelter set up at Noble City Hall, but planned to go to his daughter's home in Norman.

"About all we saw was smoke and a little bit of ash raining down from the sky," Moore said. "Everybody was piling into their vehicles and leaving as we were."

Lojka said an Oklahoma National Guard helicopter has been dispatched to a fast-moving blaze in Luther, northeast of Oklahoma City. He also said helicopters were helping ground crews with a fire near Mannford and Drumright in Creek County. Helicopters from the National Guard and the Bureau of Indian Affairs were fighting a fire in Creek County.

The Oklahoma County Sheriff's Office said it was investigating reports that someone in a black pickup truck near Luther was tossing out newspapers that had been set on fire. The blaze and smoke led the Oklahoma Highway Patrol to shut down part of the Turner Turnpike, which carries Interstate 44 between Oklahoma City and Tulsa. Traffic was rerouted onto old U.S. Route 66, the famed two-lane highway that crisscrosses Oklahoma.

The state was monitoring 11 fires in all Friday afternoon. Gov. Mary Fallin announced a statewide burn ban as the fire danger heightened. She previously had announced a state of emergency for all 77 counties due to the extreme drought.

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