NOBLE, Okla. - 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 causing massive destruction.
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 Red Cross reports more than 100 buildings may have been destroyed, including several dozen homes, reports CBS Affiliate KWTV.
Noble Emergency Management reports the fire that started at 132nd and McGuire Road is threatening 75 to 100 homes.
According to Norman police, part of State Highway 9 has been shut down due to the fire.
Two National Guard helicopters are assisting firefighters.
Oklahoma Forestry Services spokeswoman Michelle Finch-Walker said the number of wildfires this year is shaping up to be among the worst in state history.
Sheriff Whetsel 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.
Oklahoma County Sheriff’s spokesman Mark Myers says deputies are searching for the driver of a black Ford pickup that witnesses reported seeing tossing a lit newspaper out of the vehicle about 4 p.m. Friday.
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.
Gov. Mary Fallin toured Luther Saturday morning, saying the fire and damage are “heartbreaking.”
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.”