Wind-fanned wildfires threaten to spread in parched Oklahoma

By Nick Oxford
Wind-fanned wildfires threaten to spread in parched Oklahoma

By Nick Oxford

TALOGA, Okla. (Reuters) - Wildfires which have killed two people in western Oklahoma could spread and more could ignite as wind gusts of up to 50 miles per hour whip an area where scant rain has fallen in five months, fire and forestry officials said on Tuesday.

Several wildfires have begun in the past week, and the largest, dubbed the Rhea Fire, began on Thursday. By Tuesday it covered nearly 250,000 acres, in western Oklahoma, and was only 3 percent contained, said Shawna Hartman, spokeswoman for Oklahoma Forestry Services.

That fire last week consumed the home, barn and half of the small herd of cattle of Larry Lynes, 66, and his wife, Arlinda, 64, who live near Taloga, Oklahoma.

"We didn't have any time at all," Arlinda Lynes said on Tuesday. "So I went in there and got photo albums from when the children were little and some papers off the desk."

Arlinda Lynes said the couple will rebuild, and their small herd is growing again.

"We got a new baby (calf) this morning, which we are going to name Smokey," she said.

Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin has declared a state of emergency for 52 of the state's 77 counties because of the wildfires and critical conditions for more fires to start.

Western Oklahoma has had no significant rainfall in more than 150 days, while the relative humidity is extremely low, said Hartman.

"This presents unprecedented conditions for this part of Oklahoma for sure," Hartman said in a phone call.

There was a "100 percent chance" that a spark would ignite if it flew into the state's dry grasslands, she said, and any fire would spread rapidly because of the high winds.

Later on Tuesday, new flames sprung up south of the western Oklahoma town of Seiling, Hartman said.

Ryan Barnes, meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Norman, Oklahoma, said relief was several days away, with the heaviest rains forecast from Friday night into Saturday morning.

A woman who was trying to evacuate from her residence was killed when flames from the Rhea fire burned the car she was driving, Hartman said. Local media reports said her body was found on Saturday.

A separate fire in western Oklahoma killed a 61-year-old man last Thursday, Oklahoma fire officials said.

(Additional reporting by Bernie Woodall in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.; Editing by James Dalgleish and Cynthia Osterman)