Wildfires flare again in Oklahoma, threatens town

AP News
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Posted: Apr 05, 2016 10:20 PM

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Oklahoma authorities on Tuesday urged residents of the small town of Freedom to evacuate as a wildfire flared in the same area near the border with Kansas where blazes last month scorched hundreds of square miles.

Woods County Emergency Management Director Steve Foster said sheriff's deputies were encouraging the 300 or so residents to leave Freedom, which is about 170 miles northwest of Oklahoma city.

The fire was burning uncontrolled, stoked by wind gusts of around 40 miles per hour, said Woodward County Emergency Management Director Matt Lehenbauer. By late evening Tuesday, the flames had stalled at the Cimarron River west of Freedom, but officials remained wary of its potential threat to the town.

"We're going to have to really watch it, because if it jumps that river, it's going to be tough to stop again," Lehenbauer said.

Oklahoma Forestry Services said in a statement that structures had been lost in the fire and in another blaze in the central part of the state. Spokeswoman Hannah Anderson said the agency doesn't have accurate damage totals yet.

Authorities said their task was complicated by shifting winds. The wind initially was from the southwest but is expected to shift and come from the west later on Tuesday evening, which could be more dangerous for Freedom. Late on Tuesday winds could shift again, blowing from the north, Lehenbauer said.

Officials estimate the fire has burned roughly 40 square miles of rural land. Local television video showed the fire crossing a road and sending thick plumes of smoke into the air. More than a dozen fire departments and Oklahoma Forestry Services were fighting the blaze, Lehenbauer said.

While reporting on the fire for Oklahoma City's KWTV station, storm trackers Amy and Val Castor saw a road grader traveling in the path of the quick-moving flames. Val Castor said he figured the driver had no chance to escape the vehicle before the flames reached him, so Castor drove near the road grader and urged the driver to jump in their car.

"There's no way you can outrun that fire," Castor said. "It probably would have burned him up if he had stayed there."

The road grader, stuck in the dirt, became engulfed in flames seconds after the driver leapt out and ran to the Castors' car. Large flames could be seen blowing toward the windshield as they pulled away.

The town of Freedom is about five miles southwest of the spot where a previous fire started in March, then spread from Oklahoma into Kansas, scorching an estimated 574 square miles of rural land in the two states.

Tuesday's fire threatened homes and an iodine-manufacturing plant, Lehenbauer said. Officials don't believe the plant would be a significant explosion risk, but it could produce environmental hazards if it caught on fire.

In central Oklahoma, another fire north of Luther prompted local officials to advise nearby residents to evacuate, according to a statement from the state emergency management office. Eight fire departments responded to fight that blaze. Luther is about 25 miles northeast of Oklahoma City.

Firefighters had set up containment lines they expected would prevent the fire near Luther from spreading far beyond its path Tuesday night, although no containment figure was readily available, Anderson said.