Strong winds challenge firefighters battling Oklahoma blaze

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OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) – Authorities are responding to wildfires in Oklahoma and Kansas that have led to evacuations, scorched mostly rural land and destroyed an unknown number of structures.

In Oklahoma, the largest fire was in the same area near the border with Kansas where blazes last month scorched hundreds of square miles.

Authorities there urged the approximately 300 residents of Freedom, about 170 miles northwest of Oklahoma City, to evacuate their homes on Tuesday afternoon, Woods County Emergency Management Director Steve Foster said.

The fire stalled late Tuesday at the Cimarron River west of Freedom, but Woodward County Emergency Management Director Matt Lehenbauer said early Wednesday that winds shifted overnight, diminishing the threat to the town.

But Wednesday’s forecast looked tricky for firefighters hoping to contain the blaze.

“We’re expecting wind gusts of 40, 45 mph,” Lehenbauer said. “That’s going to go all through the day and probably not start to subside until sundown. That’s a huge concern.”

Oklahoma Forestry Services said in a statement that structures had been lost in the fire and in another blaze in the central part of the state. Spokeswoman Hannah Anderson said damage assessments Wednesday would determine how many buildings were destroyed.

Officials estimate the latest fire has burned roughly 40 square miles of rural land. More than a dozen fire departments and Oklahoma Forestry Services are fighting the blaze, Lehenbauer said, and fresh crews were arriving early Wednesday to relieve firefighters who had been battling the blaze since Tuesday afternoon.

There were no immediate reports of injuries in either state.

While reporting on the fire for Oklahoma City’s KWTV station, storm trackers Amy and Val Castor saw a road grader traveling in the path of the quick-moving flames. Val Castor said the driver would have no chance to escape the vehicle before the flames reached him, so he drove near the vehicle and urged the driver to jump in their car.

The road grader, stuck in the dirt, became engulfed in flames seconds after the driver leapt out and ran to the Castors’ car. Large flames could be seen blowing toward the windshield as they pulled away.

“There’s no way you can outrun that fire,” Castor said. “It probably would have burned him up if he had stayed there.”

The town of Freedom is about 5 miles southwest of the spot where a previous fire started in March, then spread from Oklahoma into Kansas, scorching an estimated 574 square miles of rural land in the two states.

The blaze had threatened homes and an iodine-manufacturing plant but firefighters were able to protect the facility by parking their firetrucks around its perimeter, Lehenbauer said. The flames jumped over the vehicles and burned all the way around the plant before the winds shifted, he said.

Crews protected some homes using the same tactic, he said.

“A lot of the guys were just surrounding the wagons around the homes as the fire jumped over and around them,” he said.

In central Oklahoma, firefighters set up containment lines around another fire north of Luther, about 25 miles northeast of Oklahoma City, and officials advised residents to evacuate their homes.

No containment figure was readily available for that fire, Anderson said.

In Kansas, the Adjutant General’s Office said residents were evacuated from up to 150 mobile homes in Riley County, where officials said a wildfire had burned just under a square mile but been contained.

Eight homes were evacuated in nearby Geary County, and voluntary evacuations were underway in Alma in Wabaunsee County. The statement said a fire is threatening the southern edge of the town.

Across the state in far southwest Kansas’ Morton County, a fire was threatening the town of Wilburton.

The National Weather Service warned that conditions conducive to fire, including low humidity and high winds, are forecast to occur in both states through Wednesday.

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Associated Press writers Jill Bleed in Little Rock, Arkansas, and Heather Hollingsworth in Kansas City, Missouri, contributed to this report.

Copyright 2016 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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