Okla. wildfire victims return to their homes

Sunday, March 13, 2011

HARRAH, Okla. -- People who live in and around Oklahoma City returned to their fire-ravaged neighborhoods Saturday to assess the damage and begin cleaning up.

Gov. Mary Fallin and U.S. Rep. James Lankford, R-Okla., toured Harrah, where 30 homes were destroyed Friday.

Fallin told homeowners Saturday to contact relief organizations and take advantage of other emergency services while they wait for their insurance claims.

Wind-driven wildfires destroyed at 49 homes in Oklahoma and eight in Texas. Officials said no major fires continued to burn, although there were still some hotspots and smoky areas.

Thousands of acres were charred in both states, but no major injuries were reported.

In one neighborhood near the junior high school in Harrah, the damage was inconsistent, with fire destroying one house but leaving the home next door untouched.

Friends helped Harrah City Council member Cass Smith pick through rubble to find valuables. The search yielded his and his wife's wedding rings and his father's ring.

"You don't realize how much nothing is until you have nothing," Smith said.

Even though his home was destroyed, Don Hatchett was happy that his wife and six grandchildren were OK.

"You just make the best of it," Hatchett said. "We got the grandkids out. We were lucky."

Unseasonably warm temperatures and strong winds helped fuel the fires Friday. Thirty broke out in Oklahoma, with the worst damage occurring in the Oklahoma City suburbs of Harrah and Choctaw. Thirty-nine homes were lost there, while six were destroyed in Goldsby and four in the Shawnee area. Like much of the state, the burned areas have been in a prolonged drought.

Michelann Ooten, a spokeswoman for the Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management, said while firefighters continued to work in some hotspots Saturday, it was "nothing like what we were doing yesterday."

Winds with gusts of 40 mph to 50 mph had died down, and cooler temperatures had helped ease the situation, she said. No major fires were still burning.

Ooten said officials planned to focus on damage assessments Saturday because by the time the fires were under control Friday, it was dark.

"Today with sunlight assisting them, they'll be able to do a far more intensive assessment," she said.

The Texas Forest Service said its firefighters responded to 25 fires that burned more than 14,000 acres Friday. In the past week, more than 20,000 acres have been burned.

The forest service said six homes were destroyed Friday in a fire south of Jacksboro, which is about 90 miles northwest of Dallas. Two other homes were lost in a 6-acre fire southeast of Granbury. But many other homes that were threatened, including as many as 200 northeast of Walnut Springs, have been saved.

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