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Wildfires destroy dozens of homes in Texas and Oklahoma

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POSSUM KINGDOM LAKE, Texas » Wildfires sweeping through parts of Texas and Oklahoma have destroyed dozens of homes and forced hundreds of people to evacuate, and although officials don’t yet know what ignited the blazes, a summer heat wave and drought have left both states with the perfect fuel: parched ground and dry vegetation.

"We’re in severe drought conditions, so just the tiniest little spark can start a wildfire," Texas Forest Service spokeswoman April Saginor said.

The Texas Forest Service warned that the weather could also hamper efforts to contain the fast-moving blaze in North Texas that destroyed at least 20 homes in a lakeside community Tuesday. The fire also was threatening about 125 other homes in the Possum Kingdom Lake area, about 75 miles west of Fort Worth.

"It sounds like we’re still going to have winds today," John Nichols, a spokesman for the service, said before dawn Wednesday. "The one positive thing you can say is that we’ve got the firefighting forces in places."

Massive blazes in roughly the same area scorched hundreds of thousands of acres and destroyed 160 homes this spring.

In Oklahoma City, Battalion Chief Felton Morgan said blowing embers likely started the fire that destroyed several homes and a church in the city’s northeast overnight. The blaze was largely under control by late Tuesday night, but fire officials were waiting for the sun to rise Wednesday to assess the damage and determine what needed to be done.

"We’ll get a helicopter in the air after daylight to see what’s going on and get a better look at what happened yesterday," Morgan said. "There are a lot of hot spots that keep kicking up and we’re trying to make sure they don’t expand and grow."

Late Tuesday, bursts of flame rose and thick black smoke engulfed the area as oil-packed cedar trees ignited, giving gawkers a stunning view from several blocks away. Utility poles lit up like matchsticks, and power was out to more than 7,000 homes and businesses.

The fire destroyed 10 to 12 homes and consumed 1,500 acres in a sparsely populated and heavily wooded section of the city, fire department spokesman Mark Woodard said. Several hundred homes were evacuated, Red Cross spokesman Rust Surette said. Air tankers and helicopters were brought in to help fight the fires.

Emergency Medical Services Authority spokeswoman Lara O’Leary said four people, including two firefighters, were treated for minor injuries in the Oklahoma City blaze. Nichols said at least three people were slightly hurt, including two firefighters fighting the blaze in the Possum Kingdom Lake area.

In Texas, part of a state highway was shut down because of tall flames and huge plumes of smoke, officials said. The fire had grown to at least 3,500 acres by Tuesday afternoon, though officials were expecting a more accurate map Wednesday morning, Nichols said.

Temperatures reached 106 degrees in the area Tuesday afternoon with winds gusting up to 28 mph, said National Weather Service meteorologist Jason Dunn. By nightfall, gusts were at about 20 mph and the temperature was around 99.

Cloud cover expected to move in overnight could help keep the winds around 10 mph, though winds as strong as 20 mph and were expected by afternoon and temperatures again could climb into the triple-digits, Dunn said.

"When you get just a little bit of wind in these dry conditions, it just doesn’t take anything to get a fire started," Nichols said.

The fire in Oklahoma City’s rural northeast corner paralleled Interstate 35, with smoke rolling northward as strong winds stoked the fire. At times, flames could be seen amid the roiling black cloud. The blaze moved about four miles from where it started Tuesday afternoon, Fire Chief Keith Bryant said.

"This is a heavily wooded area," Bryant said. "There are cedar trees out here. Cedar trees burn very hot. They’re very heavily laden with oil."

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