Firefighters contain wildfires, suspect arson

Lawton_It may seem odd, but all our heavy rain this spring and summer increases the threat of wildfires in Oklahoma this winter.  The rains created lush grasses that are now brown and are the perfect kindling.  Emergency officials have been warning farmers, ranchers and homeowners of this potentially deadly problem and now, at least 7 fires whipped by high winds kept firefighters and the Oklahoma Highway Patrol hopping Wednesday afternoon.

Investigators say it was no accident - they say someone set them on purpose.  The first was reported around 1:30pm near Newcastle.  Then, at least four others were started south of the Grady County Toll Gate past the Fletcher exit.  But, as quickly as the fires rolled across the terrain, firefighters were putting them out.

At one point authorities had to shut down I-44 near the Fletcher exit because the smoke was so thick.  The fires moved quickly because of the swift north wind and firefighters are happy I-44 served as the only fire break otherwise the fires could have gotten way out of hand.

Traffic was backed up for a short time since the smoke was so thick that drivers couldn't see and by the time 7News arrived on the scene it appeared firefighters had it under control.  Mike Baker, Chief of the Elgin Fire Department says his crew was one of the first on the scene.  He made the call requesting that OHP shut down that portion of the highway.  "You clearly couldn't see at all," he says.  "When we first got here, the whole town of Elgin was pretty much black because of the smoke - they had to stop it or else they would have had a bad accident."

In about a 30 mile spread 7News counted at least four grass fires.  All of them appeared to have started on the west side of the highway.  An OHP spokesperson could only say that the fires appeared suspicious.  Thankfully every fire was short lived thanks to the quick work of all the fire departments.

And all the wind didn't help.  "Anytime it's windy like this - and dry - fires move fast," says Baker.  "It's real hectic.  It moves real fast," he says.  "The fire loads a lot because of the rain.  Now the weeds are taller, and now loads that much more.  That with the dry conditions - it's worse that it was last year."

No homes were in danger and no one was hurt in the fires, but some areas are still burning.  Firefighters are using hay bales to help the fires burn out and crews are still monitoring the areas until it's completely safe.  Investigators ask that if you've seen anything out of the ordinary while out on I-44 please call the Oklahoma Highway Patrol Headquarters in Lawton at 580-353-0783.