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Neighbors vs. nature as wildfires rage in Oklahoma

By Phil Gast, CNN
updated 1:37 AM EDT, Sun August 5, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Firefighters face challenges with extreme heat, winds
  • Fourteen fires are burning Saturday in Oklahoma
  • At least 120 structures are destroyed
  • Strong winds, low humidity and high temperatures take a toll

(CNN) -- Christopher Carlson sprang into action when smoke and embers ushered a fire that threatened to envelop his Noble, Oklahoma, home.

After taking his 12-year-old stepson to safety, Carlson raced against time to assist neighbors and try to save his trailer from one of more than a dozen wildfires that, as of Saturday, had destroyed more than 120 structures.

"That's what we do in Oklahoma," Carlson told CNN on Saturday from Norman. "We help each other because we are prone to tornadoes, disasters and fires."

Conditions across the state remained critical, state officials said, with high temperatures and winds stoked by a cold front.

The Noble fire in Cleveland County, south of Oklahoma City, affected about 7,800 acres and had destroyed 25 structures -- including homes and outbuildings -- as of Saturday, officials said.

Residents helped shovel dirt around Carlson's residence to protect it from flames. He checked on neighbors to ensure they were aware of the danger.

Dressed in flip-flops and shorts, Carlson doused the outside of his home, which eventually lost several rooms to the fire. Carlson, who has asthma, said he suffered minor burns, smoke inhalation and respiratory failure.

Fourteen fires burned Saturday across the state, according to Michelle Finch-Walker, spokeswoman for Oklahoma Forestry Services.

Gov. Mary Fallin toured Luther, where at least 56 structures were lost to a 2,600-acre fire.

Resident Joe Love told CNN Oklahoma City affiliate KOCO that he stayed in his residence as long as he could.

"When I left, the fire was right at my back door," Love said "I don't know what to think right now. I'm just numb to the whole deal."

A fire in Creek County, southwest of Tulsa, had mushroomed to 32,000 acres. Forty structures were reported lost.

"Those numbers are going to grow," said Finch-Walker. "It is rolling. It is a big fire."

Weather has been a fierce enemy

Six helicopters had been deployed, according to Jerry Lojka, spokesman for the state department of emergency management. Officials were unable to handle additional requests.

"This is a repeat of yesterday," Lojka told CNN. "The fires that started to come under control last night are back to full fire."

Oklahoma City tied a record of 113 degrees on Friday, and Saturday's reading was expected to be around 107.

Oklahoma, like much of the nation, has been locked in an extreme drought, making fire conditions critical.

Travis King, assistant fire chief in Norman, said between 2,000 and 2,500 acres in the city had already burned. Hundreds of people have been evacuated in the Oklahoma City region since Friday, he said.

About 200 Norman and other firefighters were battling blazes, King said. Crews are rounding up livestock because farmers had to let them loose as fires approached, he said.

Officials are urging residents to have an evacuation plan ready and to take extreme precautions outdoors, including limited outdoor grilling and not driving vehicles across bone-dry grass.

"It doesn't take much to strike a blaze in these conditions," Finch-Walker said.

"Once the fire gets into a highly vegetative area with a lot of trees, it will create its own wind," Lojka said.

Marc Austin, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Norman, said the region will see somewhat better conditions Sunday, but temperatures will stay in the low 100s next week.

Rainfall for the year is 2 inches below normal, but the deficit for the summer is 6.2 inches -- meaning most of the rain fell by spring.

A cold front in northwestern Oklahoma brought increased wind speeds to an area enduring sweltering temperatures.

"It makes for a pretty nasty fire weather scenario," Austin said.

The wildfires posed special challenges for firefighters, many of whom were getting little sleep. Supervisors were closely watching their crews in the searing, wind-fed heat.

"They can only fight minutes at a time, come out to drink some water and go back in," said Capt. John Conkling of the Bristow Fire Department, which is helping combat the Creek County blaze near Freedom Hill. "Within 15 minutes your socks are squishing wet," from perspiration, he said.

Officials have described the Creek County blaze as the biggest threat.

With winds at about 30 miles per hour and a temperature of about 107, the strategy Saturday was to protect homes, he said. "To fight this fire offensively would be dangerous." Still, homes were lost Friday and Saturday.

"You want to try to help people and do the best that you can," Conkling said. "Sometimes you have to pull people back and say we can't do this because it is too dangerous."

Conkling said a couple firefighters were treated for heat exhaustion.

Seven firefighters suffered heat-related injuries Friday in Luther, northeast of Oklahoma City, said Lojka. One of them and a trooper were transported to a hospital for treatment.

David Richardson, spokesman for the Midwest City Fire Department in suburban Oklahoma City, said many crews are using lighter-weight and specialty gear in the wildfires.

"You've got to rotate those guys out," he said. "You have to look out for their safety."

Regan Siler, wife of Bristow firefighter Mike Siler, said Facebook and other forms of social media are getting the word out to communities about how to help neighbors and fire victims.

Residents across the affected areas also were donating snacks, water and Gatorade to fire crews.

"Everybody has come together to try to help," said Regan Siler. "So many of our friends have lost their homes."

CNN's Darrell Calhoun, Leslie Tripp and Kara Devlin contributed to this report.

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