OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Grass fires pushed along by 35 mph wind gusts forced an elementary school to keep some children after hours Tuesday as wildfires threatened Oklahoma ahead of its annual tornado season.
State highway officials warned motorists that they were potentially at risk, too, and illuminated highway signs reading, "Extreme Fire Danger — Do Not Drive Into Smoke."
Students who would have gone home to a neighborhood in the path of flames near Deer Creek Elementary School in Edmond were held on campus while firefighters worked to control a fire Tuesday afternoon. Superintendent Ranet Tippens said fire crews extinguished the blaze but stayed to monitor the embers as her students went home.
Forestry officials warned that Oklahoma's wildfire threat would last through Wednesday, with humidity low and wind gusts around 25 mph. Gusts topped 50 mph Monday, when smoke from a wildfire crossed a portion of Turner Turnpike, the major route between Oklahoma City and Tulsa.
The Oklahoma Department of Transportation cautioned people Tuesday not to drive through roadways shrouded in smoke. During Monday's fires, emergency dispatchers reported five collisions caused by drivers who went through smoke on the turnpike.
Lt. John Vincent, a spokesman for the Oklahoma Highway Patrol, said wildfire smoke can obscure a roadway completely. He said accidents in smoke are often preventable because drivers can usually see wildfire smoke from far enough away in daylight to plan a way around.
"Just use common sense and try not to drive into the smoke," Vincent said.
Oklahoma typically has a wildfire season in late winter after most snow has passed and before spring rains, thunderstorms and occasionally tornadoes.
Oklahoma Forestry Services alerted firefighters during the weekend that extreme fire conditions were coming, said agency spokeswoman Michelle Finch-Walker. While winds Wednesday will be calmer, the agency considered the risk of more fires "high to very high."