Storms and Fires Kill 8 in South and Southwest

Storms and Fires Kill 8 in South and Southwest

10 April 2009

published by


High winds and thunderstorms that arrived late Thursday whipped up devastating wildfires in Oklahoma and Texas and spun off fatal tornadoes that ripped through towns in Arkansas and Tennessee. At least three people died in fires in Texas, and five in the tornadoes, and hundreds of homes in all were destroyed or damaged, the authorities said.

By Friday evening, the winds had died down, enabling Oklahoma firefighters to contain eight major blazes that had burned large sections of the central part of the state. But Texas firefighters remained locked in a battle with a score of fires that had already scorched more than 100,000 acres.

A fire marshal in Oklahoma said a fire that destroyed about 50 houses in Midwest City, a suburb east of Oklahoma City, had been intentionally set. The other fires in the region appeared to have been started by downed power lines or, in some cases, by embers from flames where people had been burning brush, officials said.

Ferocious 70-mile-an-hour winds strengthened the fires Thursday as they engulfed brush and grass left dry by a yearlong drought in the region.

Paul Norwood watched helplessly on Thursday as his neighbor’s home was consumed by fire in Oklahoma County, Okla. Jim Beckel/Daily Oklahoman, via Associated Press“The fire was leapfrogging over our guys,” said Jerry Lojka, the fire marshal for Midwest City. “It was burning two and three and four houses at a time. There was no way to catch up.”

Mr. Lojka said the fire there burned 2,000 acres before it was brought under control by 2 a.m. Friday, after 20 fire departments had been called in.

By Friday afternoon, some residents of Midwest City had begun returning to homes that had been reduced to sooty rubble.

“It’s overwhelming,” said Valerie Waxenfeller as she and her family used rakes to sort through the charred contents of her home. Nearly everything had been destroyed. Even her safe had been melted and warped, the marriage certificate, birth certificates and diplomas inside too charred to read.

Though at least 100 homes were destroyed in Oklahoma, no one was killed there.

Not so in Texas. Northwest of Fort Worth, three people died in Montague County, where flames burned 25,000 acres and destroyed large parts of the towns of Sunset and Stoneburg. A woman died after calling for an ambulance in the town of Bowie, a fatality that the authorities attributed to fire, and a couple were killed when fire overtook their home near Montague.

A Dallas television station, WFAA, identified the couple as one of its former reporters, Matt Quinn, and his wife, Cathy. Their son, Chris, was being treated for burns at Parkland Memorial Hospital, the station said.

Wildfires still burned on Friday evening across North Texas, having destroyed 32 homes and forced the evacuation of five towns, said Misty Wilburn, a spokeswoman for the Texas Forest Service.

A confluence of high winds, temperatures in the 80s and dry air made conditions ripe for fires on Thursday, and the winds kept water-hauling aircraft from attacking the flames that day, officials in both states said. But the weather improved Friday, allowing aircraft to dump water on the blazes. Officials were hoping for a soaking rain this weekend to quench any lingering embers.

To the east, meanwhile, a tornado on Thursday night devastated Mena, Ark., a mountain town of 5,700 about 20 miles east of the Oklahoma border. Three people were killed, two in their houses and one in a Masonic lodge where the roof collapsed. In Mena alone, hundreds of homes were reported damaged or destroyed.

The Mena twister was born of a phenomenon called a “dry line,” which separates heated air over the Plains from moist air arriving from the Gulf of Mexico.

“There is really dry, hot air to the west of the dry line, and to the east of the dry line the air is unstable and moist,” said Greg Patrick, aNational Weather Service forecaster from Fort Worth. That caused wildfires to the west and thunderstorms and tornadoes to the east.

Then, just before 1 p.m. Friday, another tornado touched down three miles north of the Middle Tennessee city of Murfreesboro, destroying 12 houses and killing two people.

Those killed were identified as a woman and her 9-week-old baby, The Associated Press reported. At least 41 people were injured, four critically, in surrounding Rutherford County, The A.P. said.

Back in the Texas town of Sunset, with a population of fewer than 300, homeowners stared in numb grief Friday at the ruins of their houses, while neighbors dropped by to offer the use of their bedrooms or a change of clothes. At least six houses had burned to the ground, and dozens more were damaged. Firefighters from nearby communities struggled to contain more than 40 hot spots across town.

Reina Rodi, 41, held her Chihuahua as she stared at ceramic garden angels poking out of the ashes of her home. “I lost everything,” Ms. Rodi said, her voice cracking into a sob. “I guess we’ll just start all over.”

Many marveled at the capriciousness of the fire. Embers had touched down in dozens of spots, burning a house here, a house there, while leaving neighboring homes untouched.

In Oklahoma, meanwhile, residents of Midwest City also tried to salvage what they could. Dorothea Starks and her nephew Nathan Christmon spent Thursday night in a shelter, praying their house would survive. It did not.

“Whatever the fire didn’t get, the water got,” said Mr. Christmon, an accountant and amateur photographer. “I lost pictures of my dad when he was a kid, photos of my parents, everything that was in the attic. And there were things going back 100 years in that attic.”

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
WP-Backgrounds Lite by InoPlugs Web Design and Juwelier Schönmann 1010 Wien