Flames leap into the air as area firefighters fight a wildfire on Cemetery Road east of 120th on Friday, Aug. 3, 2012, east of Norman, Okla. A wildfire stirred by high winds sweeping through rural woodlands just south of the Oklahoma City area has set at a number of homes on fire. (AP Photo/The Oklahoman, Steve Sisney) TABLOIDS OUT
NOBLE, Okla. (AP) — The gusty, southerly winds that whipped wildfires through rural woodlands north and south of Oklahoma City started to die down early Saturday, but not before burning dozens of homes.
Hundreds of people were told Friday to leave their homes in at least four counties, while smoke and flames prompted authorities to close parts of Interstate 44, the main roadway between Oklahoma City and Tulsa, and two state highways. I-44 reopened late Friday night.
"A man refused to leave. From what I know, he wanted to protect his property, but your life has to be more valuable than property," Oklahoma County Sheriff John Whetsel said late Friday night.
The sheriff said at least 25 homes, a daycare center and numerous outbuildings had burned in a fire that may have been deliberately set near Luther, a town about 20 miles northeast of Oklahoma City.
Deputies were looking into reports about someone in a pickup truck who was seen throwing out newspapers that had been set on fire. By Friday night, the blaze had spread across 80 square miles, but officials said it had calmed some due to lighter winds and higher humidity.
About 40 structures were destroyed by a blaze near Tulsa. And yet another blaze destroyed at least 25 structures, including a handful of homes, after starting near Noble, about 30 miles south of Oklahoma City, and moving toward Norman, home to the University of Oklahoma.
Steve Palladino, operations chief for the Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management, said six Oklahoma National Guard helicopters will be dispatched to the fires on Saturday. Palladino said three were sent out on Friday.
"I loaded the kids up, grabbed my dogs, and it didn't even look like I had time to load the livestock, so I just got out of there," said Bo Ireland, who lives a few miles from where the Noble-area fire started. "It looked to me that, if the wind shifted even a little bit, I would be in the path of that fire. It was just too close."
There were no immediate reports of injuries or livestock losses.
Dayle Bishop said he may not have made it out of his home had a woman not knocked on his door and woken him up. Standing in a convenience store parking lot about 2 miles away from his home, he was pessimistic about its chances.
"I know it's gone," said Bishop, who works nights as a nurse. "Didn't even have time to get anything out." But he noted, "it's just stuff."
Charles Wright was with his daughter, Christina, along with their cat, at a makeshift evacuation center doubling as a staging area for fire engines, ambulances and other emergency equipment. He said law enforcement ordered them to leave their home in Norman.
"Praying for miracles. Praying for the best, that's all we can do," said Wright, who managed to pack some clothes, jewelry and legal papers before fleeing.
Ruth Hood splashed water onto two Chihuahua puppies that she grabbed along with several other animals and her children, and left as flames burned in her neighbor's yard. She said she couldn't be sure her home would survive.
"No guarantee," Hood said.
With the ongoing drought, high temperatures and gusty winds, it took little for fires to begin and spread — and there was little crews could do to fight them.
"It's difficult for the firefighters to get into the area because it's heavily wooded on either side of the smaller roads. When the winds are blowing 25 mph it just blows the embers and fireballs across the roads as if they weren't even there," said Jerry Lojka with the Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management.
At mid-afternoon Friday, the temperature in Norman hit 113 degrees, and winds were gusting at 24 mph. "I can tell you the temperatures and the wind are not helping the situation at all," said Meghan McCormick, a spokeswoman for the Cleveland County Sheriff's office.
Russell Moore, 53, who lives in the Noble area, said he was outside in his yard when a sheriff's deputy drove down the road and told people to leave. He and his son went to a shelter set up at Noble City Hall.
"About all we saw was smoke and a little bit of ash raining down from the sky," Moore said. "Everybody was piling into their vehicles and leaving as we were."
The state was monitoring 11 fires by Friday afternoon. Gov. Mary Fallin announced a statewide burn ban as the fire danger heightened. She previously had announced a state of emergency for all 77 counties due to the extreme drought.
Associated Press writers Rochelle Hines and Sean Murphy in Oklahoma City contributed to this report.