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The New York Times

The New York Times


Oklahoma Takes a Hard Hit As Grass Fires Continue to Flare Up
Published: January 3, 2006

DALLAS, Jan. 2 - Grass fires continued to vex drought-stricken Oklahoma, Texas and New Mexico on Monday, with Oklahoma City particularly hard hit.

Oklahoma City firefighters fought 35 grass fires within the city limits - one narrowly missing two shopping centers - from early Sunday to early Monday, said a Fire Department spokesman, Maj. Brian Stanaland.

"We average about two grass fires a day in a normal year," Major Stanaland said. "That went up to about three a day in 2005, which was a dry year. You can imagine what sort of New Year's Day we had fighting 35."

In Texas, state officials reported 58 new fires in the 24-hour period ending at 11:00 a.m.

Among the largest was one that began in Clay County and crossed into Montague County. At its height the fire measured 17 miles long and 4 miles wide, said Traci Weaver, a Texas Forestry Service spokeswoman. The blaze destroyed nearly 50 homes in and around the town of Ringgold, which has a population of about 100 people, and forced the evacuation of two nursing homes, one hospital and 3,200 residents in the city of Nocona. More than 80,000 acres have burned in Texas.

Four deaths have been reported in Texas and Oklahoma since last Tuesday. Oklahoma City's size, 621 square miles, poses a challenge for firefighters, Major Stanaland said.

"You've got an urban environment downtown with suburban developments surrounding that, and then rural-urban areas where thick wooded brush goes on for acre after acre until it runs right into a housing development," he said. "That's where our biggest worries are."

Four larger fires broke out Sunday, including one that approached a shopping area in the north-central part of the city. "There's a 60-acre tract close to the turnpike that caught fire," Major Stanaland said. "It jumped across a four-lane road and headed straight for several restaurants near a Wal-Mart and Sam's." The fire was ultimately contained and extinguished.

Fires destroyed four homes in Oklahoma City on Sunday. No deaths were reported. Statewide, 30,000 acres have burned since last Tuesday.

Fires have also broken out in southeast New Mexico, where 11 houses have been destroyed in the Hobbs area since Sunday.

"We've lost numerous other structures, five vehicles and tens of thousands of acres of land," said Dan Ware, a spokesman for the New Mexico State Forestry Division. Two fires outside Tatum, north of Hobbs, have burned more than 30,000 acres, and another larger burn known as the Buckeye fire is expected to consume 40,000 to 50,000 acres.

"The one thing we have in our favor is that there are a lot less people at risk," Mr. Ware said. "A ranch here, a ranch there, a few barns there."