- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 11, 2009

MIDWEST CITY, OKLA. (AP) - Residents of small towns in Oklahoma and Texas have found themselves homeless, in some cases returning to find whole communities have been charred by deadly, wind-driven wildfires.

Three people died Thursday and well over 100 homes were destroyed by the fires _ at least one of them suspected of being intentionally set _ in western and central Oklahoma and in Texas. The blazes eased Friday as wind diminished from the peak of up to 70 mph.

Paul Cunningham, the Sheriff of Montague County in North Texas, said one couple died when fire overtook their home and another woman died after calling for an ambulance as a fire spread through an unincorporated part of the county. The woman’s cause of death was unclear.

“We’ve lost communities, pretty much,” Cunningham said. “Stoneburg is pretty much gone.”

Parts of Stoneburg still smoldered Friday, including railroad ties under the tracks that bisect the town. The general store was in ruins. A few miles away, the remains of about a half-dozen head of cattle were visible in a charred pasture.

Residents had fled Thursday as flames tore through that town of 51 people and nearby Sunset, population 350.

When Fred Blackwell came back to his 1920s-era brick home in Stoneburg, it bore little resemblance to the two-story building he had known.

“That rock was glowing,” said Blackwell, standing amid twisted sheet metal and mounds of ashes. “I knew everything else had been burned down because there was nothing else around it.”

“It tore me up,” Blackwell said. “… I was hoping it missed. But I kinda had a feeling it didn’t. When I saw it, that’s a whole different thing there when you see it.”

About 70 homes in and around the Oklahoma City suburbs of Midwest City and Choctaw were destroyed by a fire that Midwest City Fire Marshal Jerry Lojka said was intentionally set. He said investigators had not determined whether any malice was involved that would make it arson. He said authorities had not identified any suspects or determined a motive, but said the fire started in an area near a wrecker service that is frequented by teenagers from a nearby school.

There and elsewhere across Oklahoma, 168 homes and businesses had burned down and 62 people were injured, the Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management said.

Fire investigators were still trying to determine what caused the other Oklahoma fires.

Oklahoma evacuees were allowed to return home Friday. Sammetra Christmon found only a smoking ruin where her home had been in Midwest City.

“The memories, the photos, this is the house I have worked all my life for,” she said Friday. Her 9-year-old daughter took it hard.

“She’s devastated, just in tears this morning,” Christmon said. “This is the only house she’s ever known.”

The blazes were fueled by dry grass and brush and pushed by strong wind that in some cases prevented helicopter crews from dropping water. In Texas, they blackened more than 100,000 acres, or more than 156 square miles. Oklahoma officials did not immediately give a total acreage figure.

“Anytime you have high winds and low humidity, it’s just the perfect storm for wildfires, and that’s what’s happening here,” Oklahoma Emergency Management Director Albert Ashwood said.

The couple who died in Texas were identified as former television reporter Matt Quinn and his wife, Cathy. Matt Quinn quit ABC News after two years to join WFAA-TV of Dallas-Fort Worth in 1980 and retired in the early 1990s. Their son, Chris, was hospitalized in fair condition with burns in Dallas, the television station reported.

In Sunset, Texas, where at least nine homes were destroyed, Linda Freeman was returning from her job at a nursing home Thursday night when she saw the thick smoke and was told she needed to evacuate.

The 64-year-old hurriedly grabbed a few pictures, then 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.


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

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