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Blazes Claim Up To 40 Structures In Oklahoma City Area

March 23, 1991

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ A combination of dry grass, stiff wind and careless people spread waves of fast-moving grass fires that nearly overwhelmed firefighters and destroyed dozens of houses. One woman was killed.

″At one time we had every firefighting unit in the city of Oklahoma City out. We had no resources left in our community,″ said Jon Hansen, Oklahoma City assistant fire chief.

Close to 40 structures were destroyed in the worst day of fires in the city’s history, Hansen said Friday night.

Most of the fires were in the Oklahoma City area although some burned in northeastern Oklahoma. Firefighters had most of the blazes under control by midnight as the wind subsided, but at least three continued today.

All three were under control, although one in far northeastern Oklahoma City was ″burning pretty good,″ District Fire Chief Ron Key said today.

″We’re anticipating a problem with the wind later today,″ he said. ″The wind is going to get up to 25 miles per hour. We want to make sure it’s all burned off and we have a good clear area″ before then, Key said.

The fire department didn’t have an exact count today of either structures or acreage burned.

″When we get these (last three fires) out, then we’ll start doing assessment,″ said Key. ″I know you can drive for miles and see burned areas.″

Hansen said most of the fires were ″people generated,″ caused by discarded smoking material, arsonists or by people burning trash.

Wind blowing at 30 to 40 mph with gusts to 60 mph sent flames streaking through pastures and semi-rural housing developments alike. In Oklahoma City, most of the damage occurred on the eastern and far northeastern part of the city.

Firefighters discovered the body of a disabled 68-year-old woman in the charred remains of her home, about 10 feet from her back door.

″We found her close to her wheelchair,″ Hansen said. ″Her family said she was invalid and had trouble getting out.

″The fire traveled so quickly ... we can’t chase it, can’t get ahead of it. We tried to make a stand at some homes, but our hose streams aren’t powerful enough out of our pumper trucks to stop the fires.″

At least two firefighters were injured in Oklahoma City and two in Payne County, north of the city.

Some fires burned through power lines, and others prompted authorities to temporarily close sections of highways. Power was restored to all customers by evening, said Dave Raybern, spokesman for Oklahoma Gas and Electric.

The wind also caused problems at Oklahoma City’s Will Rogers World Airport, delaying or canceling flights.

Chris Sohl, meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Norman, said the wind was caused by the movement of air from a high pressure system over Texas to a low pressure system that moved from the Rocky Mountains into Kansas.

″We just got caught right in the middle of it,″ Sohl said.

Update hourly