Okla. farmers relive fast-moving flames

THE BALTIMORE SUN

WEWOKA, Okla. -- The wind-whipped flames were upon them before they knew it, Margo Weger recalled, and the cattle disappeared behind plumes of smoke that parted to reveal a terrifying sight.

"Larry!" she remembers screaming to her husband, "the cows are burning!"

Nine days after a wildfire scorched their ranch here in east-central Oklahoma, the Wegers, like others in the drought-stricken region, are reliving narrow escapes and counting their blessings. They were spared, as were their 75 head of cattle. Only a last-minute shift of the wind saved the business district of Wewoka from burning.

"The wind blew so fast here, the trees had no time to catch fire," said Margo Weger, who said her family lost a barn and practically all their feed, as 150 acres of grassland and 163 round bales of hay were reduced to a grotesque moonscape of swirled gray ash still warm to the touch almost a week and a half later.

Under the barn's twisted tin roof, Weger squatted over a blackened metal skeleton. "That's a lawnmower," she said. Then she corrected herself. "Was," she said.

Many other ranchers and farmers suffered similar losses, said Aubie Keesee, an extension educator with Oklahoma State University in nearby Holdenville who is helping with recovery efforts. The fires, Keesee said, burned an untold number of farm animals, sometimes "melting the ear tags right out of their ears."

"We've had cows lay down to calve, and the fire came and burned them both up," he said.

The fires have also worsened the drought. "Some were hot enough to evaporate ponds," said Kevin Nickell, the extension director in Wewoka, 60 miles southeast of Oklahoma City, for Oklahoma State's program in Seminole County.

Wildfires have consumed close to 650,000 acres since November in Oklahoma, Texas and New Mexico, and more than 500 homes and at least six lives have been lost. Firefighters in the three states braced for further outbreaks this weekend from unseasonably high temperatures, parched landscape and predicted winds.

In Texas, the concern shifted to more-populated areas, with fires threatening Nacogdoches, in east Texas, and greater San Antonio, to the south, and forcing the evacuation of 250 people in Killeen, in central Texas. All three blazes were eventually contained.

On Friday, Gov. Brad Henry of Oklahoma issued a proclamation declaring today a day of prayer. "Our hearts go out to those whose lives have been affected by the wildfires," Henry said. "Oklahomans are strong and resilient, but as people of deep faith in God who have always found solace and comfort in prayer, we understand our limits." He called on Oklahomans to pray for fire victims and firefighters "and for rain."

"In Oklahoma - I have to brag upon our state - we're very good at coming together," Lt. Gov. Mary Fallin said in a visit last week to a convention center in Shawnee that had been turned into a command center.

Weger, who also works as a deputy county clerk in Wewoka, said she could see two fires burning when she left for lunch a few miles away in Holdenville. "When we came back there were seven fires," she said.

"I couldn't see anything because of the smoke," she recalled. They managed to lower some gates to shoo the cattle, none of which turned out to have been on fire, into an area already burned, saving them. Some of the pigs, though, suffered seared bellies, she said.

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