Towns in Okla., Texas ravaged by fires

More than 100 homes destroyed; 1 blaze suspicious

Reuven Raper-Ostrow, 7, walked through the rubble of his burned out home after he and his family returned to the area Friday in Sunset, Texas. More than 1,000 acres burned in the region. Reuven Raper-Ostrow, 7, walked through the rubble of his burned out home after he and his family returned to the area Friday in Sunset, Texas. More than 1,000 acres burned in the region. (Tony Gutierrez/ Associated Press)
By Sean Murphy and Schuyler Dixon
Associated Press / April 12, 2009
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MIDWEST CITY, Okla. - Residents of small towns in Oklahoma and Texas have been left homeless, in some cases returning to find whole communities charred by deadly, wind-driven wildfires.

Three people died Thursday and well over 100 houses 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 70 miles per hour.

Paul Cunningham, the Sheriff of Montague County in North Texas, said one couple died when fire overtook their house 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," 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 house 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 kind of had a feeling it didn't."

About 70 houses in and around the Oklahoma City suburbs of Midwest City and Choctaw were destroyed by a fire that Jerry Lojka, Midwest City's fire marshal, said was intentionally set. Investigators had not determined whether malice was involved that would make it arson. He said authorities had not identified suspects or determined a motive, but that the fire started near a wrecker service frequented by teenagers.

There and elsewhere across Oklahoma, 168 houses 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 ruins where her house had been in Midwest City.

"The memories, the photos, this is the house I have worked all my life for," she said. 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, more than 100,000 acres were blackened, more than 156 square miles. Oklahoma officials did not 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," said Albert Ashwood, director of Oklahoma's emergency management.

The couple who died in Texas were identified as former television reporter Matt Quinn and his wife, Cathy. Their son, Chris, was hospitalized in fair condition with burns in Dallas, a television station reported.

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