Oklahoma Wildfire Destroyed 40 Buildings

August 11, 2011

The weekend wildfire that swept through a rural swath of Pawnee County, damaging or destroying at least 40 structures and charring thousands of acres, was brought under control Tuesday afternoon but not before it did some damage.

Pawnee County Emergency Management Director Mark Randell said the fire began Sunday and quickly gained strength. Dozens of firefighters were dispatched to fight the blaze, which is estimated to have burned at least 15,000 acres in northern Oklahoma.

“We’re working on trying to put this thing to bed,” Randell said.

A lingering drought and an unyielding heat wave have made Oklahoma more susceptible to grass fires this year. Last weekend, large wildfires destroyed at least 13 homes and numerous barns and sheds in Edmond in central Oklahoma and charred about 1,000 acres. On Monday, firefighters in central Oklahoma battled a brush fire in southeast Norman.

An Oklahoma Forestry Services advisory warned residents last week that fire danger would be very high to extreme across much of the state, with afternoon relative humidity dipping into the low to mid-teens and record high temperatures expected. The advisory cautioned that any wildfire that does start will burn intensely and spread rapidly.

Gov. Mary Fallin has issued a burn ban for all of Oklahoma’s 77 counties, many of which had previously been under county-ordered bans.

In Pawnee County, located about 60 miles from Tulsa, Pawnee Nation emergency management director Monty Matlock said a couple of firefighters suffered minor injuries while helping battle the fires. Dale Carter, chairman of the Pawnee County Board of Commissioners, said a civilian was also hurt but that he didn’t know the extent of that person’s injuries.

“I’ve lived here most of my life, right in this district, and I never remembered a fire of this magnitude,” Carter said. “All the conditions were just right — it was dry and hot and the humidity was real low.”

Some victims of the weekend blaze took shelter at the Western Heights Baptist Church. Pawnee resident Kenneth Steward, 55, said he stepped outside Sunday afternoon and could see the thick smoke from the line of fires bearing down on his house. Steward, his wife and three children got out of the house before it burned to the ground, he said Tuesday.

“We had to get out of there,” said Steward, who managed to haul away one possession from the endangered house: an ice chest. “We lost everything.”