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At least 1 of fires raging over Okla., Texas arson

SEAN MURPHY and SCHUYLER DIXON   04/10/09 10:56 PM ET   AP

Oklahoma Fires

MIDWEST CITY, Okla. — Oklahomans and Texans returned home to charred buildings, ruined cars and glowing rock Friday in the wake of several drought-fueled, wind-driven fires, at least one of which was deliberately set, according to fire officials.

Three people were killed, well over 100 homes were lost and some small towns turned largely to ash in the fires that raged Thursday in wildfires in western and central Oklahoma and in Texas. The blazes eased Friday as winds of up to 70 mph diminished.

About 70 homes in and around the Oklahoma City suburbs of Midwest City and Choctaw were destroyed in what Midwest City Fire Marshal Jerry Lojka said was arson. He said authorities have not identified any suspects or determined a motive, but that the fire started in an area near a wrecker service that is frequented by teenagers from a nearby high school.

The fire engulfed homes throughout east Oklahoma County, including in Midwest City and Choctaw. So far, more than 160 houses had burned down in the state and 62 people were injured, the Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management said.

Fire investigators were still trying to determine what caused the other fires.

The three deaths were in the tree-dotted grasslands of North Texas. Dozens of homes were lost and hundreds more threatened as fires blackened more than 150 square miles of the state.

Montague County Sheriff Paul Cunningham said one couple died when fire overtook their home near Montague and another woman died after calling for an ambulance as a fire spread through an unincorporated part of the county. Her cause of death was unclear.

"We've lost communities, pretty much," Cunningham said. "Stoneburg is pretty much gone."

Residents fled Thursday as a wildfire tore a blackened swath through that town of 51 people and nearby Sunset, population 350.

When Fred Blackwell came back to his 1920s-era brick home in Stoneburg, it bore little resemblance to the two-story building he had known.

"That rock was glowing," said Blackwell, standing amid twisted tin and mounds of ashes. "I knew everything else had been burned down because there was nothing else around it."

Blackwell also lost a large workshop behind the house.

"It tore me up," Blackwell said. "... I was hoping it missed. But I kinda had a feeling it didn't. When I saw it, that's a whole different thing there when you see it."

Across the highway, the general store was in ruins, just down a gravel road from an auto salvage yard with a long row of burned-out cars.

Parts of Stoneburg still smoldered Friday, including railroad ties under the tracks that bisect the town. A few miles away, the remains of about a half dozen head of cattle could were visible in a charred pasture.

The National Weather Service said the fire danger remained high across North Texas on Friday due to dry conditions and wind gusts up to 25 mph, although the situation had eased considerably from Thursday.

"Today the Texas Forest Service is definitely on the offense, not on the defense," spokeswoman Misty Wilburn said.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry on Friday asked FEMA to issue an emergency declaration that would provide federal assets and resources for 199 threatened counties, and five of the hardest hit counties were authorized federal funding that pays for 75 percent of eligible firefighting costs. Oklahoma Gov. Brad Henry declared a state of emergency for 31 central and southern Oklahoma communities, which allows state agencies to speed the delivery of needed resources.

Residents who had been evacuated while the fires raged were allowed to return home. For Sammetra Christmon of Midwest City, there was only a blackened, smoking ruin where her home had been.

"The memories, the photos, this is the house I have worked all my life for," she said Friday as she and her family picked through the smoldering debris. Her 9-year-old daughter was taking it hard.

"She's devastated, just in tears this morning," Christmon said. "This is the only house she's ever known."

The blazes were fueled by dry grass and brush and pushed by strong winds that in some cases prevented water-dropping helicopters from lending aid.

"Anytime you have high winds and low humidity, it's just the perfect storm for wildfires, and that's what's happening here," Oklahoma Emergency Management Director Albert Ashwood said.

The Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management said a firefighter helping battle a blaze in Lincoln County, northeast of Oklahoma City, was hospitalized with burns and another person was severely injured after losing control of a vehicle on a smoke-covered road in Stephens County in southern Oklahoma.

Other injuries ranged from minor to moderate, officials said.

The couple who died in Texas were identified as former television reporter Matt Quinn and his wife, Cathy. Matt Quinn quit ABC News after two years to join WFAA-TV of Dallas-Fort Worth in 1980 and retired in the early 1990s. Their son, Chris, was in fair condition with burns at Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas, the television station reported.

In Sunset, where at least nine homes were destroyed, Linda Freeman was returning from her job at a nursing home Thursday night when she saw the thick smoke everywhere and was told she needed to evacuate.

The 64-year-old hurriedly grabbed a few pictures, then went to her son's house about 10 miles away where "he turned on the news and I saw my home burning."

On Friday, all that remained were the steel stairs that once led to her front door.

___

Schuyler Dixon reported from Stoneburg, Texas. Associated Press writers Murray Evans in Oklahoma City; Angela K. Brown in Fort Worth, Texas; Betsy Blaney in Lubbock, Texas; and Linda Stewart Ball in Dallas contributed to this report.

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Filed by Nicholas Sabloff  |