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Wildfires put Oklahoma to the test

By Phil Gast, CNN
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Wildfires move into Oklahoma City area
  • State is enduring drought, high winds and low humidity
  • Crews are fighting fires all over the state

(CNN) -- Cruelly hot, dry and windy conditions have made Oklahoma a tinder box, with crews deploying helicopters and bulldozers to keep rampant wildfires in check.

A state of emergency was declared March 11 for all 77 counties, and the prolonged drought has done nothing to lift it.

The first three months of the year were the fourth driest on record with a statewide average rainfall total of 2.3 inches, more than 4 inches below normal.

The series of grass fires made it into metropolitan Oklahoma City Wednesday, with at least three incidents, officials said.

About 250 firefighters were combating a 2,000-acre fire near the towns of Jones and Spencer, in the eastern part of Oklahoma County, said Deputy Chief Cecil Clay of the Oklahoma City Fire Department.

At least four homes were destroyed and a few other structures were lost or damaged, but the blaze was largely contained, he told CNN.

"It's almost a miracle" more homes weren't consumed, said the chief, adding that's little consolation to those who suffered losses. A fire in Harrah, also in Oklahoma County, a few weeks ago burned up to 50 homes.

One firefighter was hospitalized overnight Wednesday for cardiac observation, Clay said.

Conditions, which include low humidity, were worse earlier in the day.

"The wind has been tremendous in the past week," Clay said. In some cases, flames in trees and grass have jumped up to 300 yards.

Crews from several fire departments are rotating. "They're pretty weary," Clay said. "We'd love to see some rain."

An estimated 200 people were evacuated.

Several agencies are working together to quell the fires.

The Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management received no reports Wednesday of deaths or confirmed injuries, said spokeswoman Michelann Ooten.

"Hot and dry conditions combined again today with dormant vegetation to produce critical wildfire conditions," Ooten said.

National Guard helicopters hauled water to at least three fires, the agency said. Crews were facing down flames near Keystone Dam, near Sand Springs, in Texas County and northwest of the town of Cement in Caddo County.

The situation was even worse Sunday, when more than 100 wildfires were reported.

Oklahoma City has received a meager 2.2 inches of rainfall this year, more than four inches below normal, said meteorologist Ty Judd in the National Weather Service's Norman office. Winter is dry, but the region normally picks up moisture in March and April, he said.

"The ground is really dry," Judd told CNN.

A 20% chance of rain over the weekend in Oklahoma City is the best forecast meteorologists can muster.

Oklahoma, home of the "Dust Bowl" seasons of the 1930s, is accustomed to extreme weather.

The past few weeks have reminded residents of the reality of what a combination of conditions can bring.

The statewide average rainfall total in March was a paltry 0.7 inches, 2.41 inches below normal, according to the Oklahoma Climatological Survey. It was the driest March on record for southeastern and south central Oklahoma, and the second driest in the southwest. Conditions exacerbated drought conditions already in place.

The outlook for April from the National Weather Service's Climate Prediction Center shows "an increased chance for above normal temperatures in Oklahoma as well as an increased chance for below normal precipitation in the western two-thirds of the state," according to the survey.

Rusty Surette, a spokesman for the American Red Cross of Central Oklahoma, told CNN a shelter has been opened in Jones.

It was empty Wednesday night, but he expected some people to come later in the evening.

"This has been one of the toughest seasons I've seen in a long time," he said.