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Fires ravage Oklahoma City, Texas towns
Updated: 2006-01-02 17:07

Wildfires raged across Texas, Oklahoma and New Mexico on Sunday, burning homes and sparking a patchwork of flames across the region as gusting winds blew flaming embers into the dry grass.

An oil well pump is silhouetted against a grass fire in Guthhrie, Okla., Sunday, Jan. 1, 2006. Dry and windy conditions made for perfect conditions for fires that have plagued Texas and Oklahoma in the past week. [AP]

Crews flying over northern and western Texas to assess the damage reported the tiny communities of Ringgold and Kokomo, together home to about 125 people, had essentially been wiped out by flames, Texas Forest Service spokeswoman Traci Weaver said.

Bill Sandlin and his wife saw smoke on the horizon as they returned home from church and started watering their yard. But as flames approached, they packed clothes, pictures and his gun collection. They drove off just as flames started to engulf their house and three barns, located about 125 miles west of Dallas.

"We hate losing our stuff, but at least everybody's OK," Sandlin said.

In New Mexico, just across the Texas line, two dozen elderly residents were moved out of a nursing home in Hobbs, and a casino and community college in the town of 29,000 were evacuated as firefighters battled grass fires that only began settling down as night fell and the winds eased.

Dozens of fires burned across the dry Oklahoma landscape as the wind gusts reached 50 mph, forcing the evacuations of two neighborhoods in the northeast part of Oklahoma City. Several homes were in flames late Sunday.

"Today has been extremely intense," fire Maj. Brian Stanaland said in Oklahoma City, where fire crews battled at least 15 flare-ups as the flames snaked in long lines through dry, mostly open areas. "I think it's maybe starting to take its toll on our department."

Some injuries were reported in the three states Sunday, but no deaths. The previous week, grass fires had killed four people, destroyed about 100 homes and ravaged more than 50,000 acres across the region.

Officials warned Sunday that the dry, gusty conditions and extreme fire danger would continue.

Oklahoma Gov. Brad Henry urged people to avoid any kind of open flame, even throwing a cigarette out a car window.

"We will overcome this challenge," Henry assured residents in a televised news conference Sunday night as firefighters battled the flames in Oklahoma City. He said he had urged President Bush to quickly approve a federal disaster declaration.

Power lines were blamed one grass fire in the city, Stanaland said. While firefighters battled that blaze, high winds tossed material from a nearby construction site into power lines, causing the debris to burn before it landed on a nearby nursing home.

"You basically had flying, flaming debris," Stanaland said. "Luckily, we were already on the scene putting out the fires when it happened so we were able to put it out."

Across Oklahoma, dozens of wildfires swept across more than 5,000 acres and destroyed at least a dozen homes on Sunday, said Michelann Ooten, a spokeswoman for the Department of Emergency Management. One large blaze was burning near Guthrie. Another near Wainwright in Muskogee County had charred about 4,000 acres and was at least a mile wide, Ooten said.

In New Mexico, the winds began dying down with nightfall, and firefighters contained several grass fires that had broken out near Hobbs, Lovington, Tatum and Logan, said Dan Ware, a spokesman for the state Forestry Division.

"That's the nature of grass fires, they burn hot, and they burn fast," Ware said. "They're driven by wind. Once the wind comes down, once the temperatures come down, they lie down."

But that doesn't mean the danger is over, he said. "As soon as the temperature comes up tomorrow (Monday), as soon as the wind comes up — bam, we're off to the races again."

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