August 4, 2012 / 3:10 AM / 7 years ago

Oklahoma crews battle expanding wildfires in torrid conditions

OKLAHOMA CITY (Reuters) - Fire crews toiled in triple-digit heat around drought-stricken Oklahoma on Saturday to contain at least 15 blazes that have destroyed more than 120 structures and left a small town smoldering.

Authorities said they were investigating whether the fire that devastated the town of Luther was deliberately set.

Governor Mary Fallin on Saturday toured Luther, where 56 structures were destroyed, and described it as “total devastation.” She said she had met with families who had little time to save anything but photos and pets.

“A lot of people were at work and didn’t realize how quickly the fire was moving,” Fallin told Reuters in a telephone interview. “It’s emotional. For the children, it’s very emotional to lose their possessions.”

Luther, which has about 600 residents, is about 25 miles northeast of Oklahoma City. The fire, fanned by southerly winds that pushed it across a highway into town, left Luther town without electricity or water.

The Oklahoma County sheriff’s department said it was investigating the cause of the blaze after receiving a 911 call from a man who reported seeing another man toss a lighted newspaper from a pickup truck window on Friday afternoon.

No arrests have been made but investigators believe the tipster’s story is credible, said Mark Myers, spokesman for the sheriff’s department.

Officials had reported 11 separate fires around Oklahoma on Friday and that number increased to 15 on Saturday, the Oklahoma Forestry Service said. The largest covered about 32,000 acres south of Tulsa in Creek County.

No deaths have been reported in the fires.

Three grass fires erupted on Saturday, including a large one near the airport in Stillwater, Oklahoma, said Kelly Cain, a state emergency management spokeswoman.

Oklahoma has joined several other states including Colorado, Utah, Arizona, Arkansas and Nebraska in being struck by wildfires during the widespread drought.

Nearly two-thirds of the contiguous United States was under some level of drought as of July 31, according to the Drought Monitor, a weekly report compiled by U.S. climate experts. Nearly all of Oklahoma was under severe drought or worse.

Below-normal rainfall, temperatures up to 113 degrees Fahrenheit (45 Celsius) and wilted vegetation have made the potential for wildfires extremely high throughout Oklahoma.

Slideshow (5 Images)

On Saturday afternoon, the temperature was a blistering 107 degrees (41 Celsius) in Luther and forecast to reach 113 degrees, according to the National Weather Service.

A cool front expected to arrive late Saturday should lower temperatures but could bring strong and gusty shifting winds that could worsen the wildfire danger, the weather service said.

“When the wind shifts it may re-ignite some fires,” Fallin said. “It might drop down to 90 but it’s still going to be very, very hot.”

Reporting by Steve Olafson; Editing by David Bailey, Colleen Jenkins and Bill Trott

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