MEDICINE PARK, Okla. — When the lights began to flicker and the smell of smoke wafted through the Old Plantation restaurant in the downtown of this sleepy old resort town, manager Beth Petty began to sense something was wrong.
Her fears were confirmed when police banged on the door of the restaurant and ordered patrons and employees to evacuate.
High winds and tinder dry conditions quickly fueled the blaze that began Thursday evening on an artillery range at nearby Fort Sill U.S. Army post and continued to rage out of control on Friday, destroying at least 13 homes, consuming 5,500 acres and forcing more than 1,500 people from their homes in Comanche County in southwest Oklahoma.
"We looked out behind the restaurant on our way out and saw just a huge wall of smoke," said Petty, 31. "We saw the flames the whole way out of town."
The fire was only 40 percent contained Friday night, emergency officials said.
The blaze tore through the Mt. Valley mobile home park, leaving seven mobile homes in a pile of ashy rubble and twisted metal frames. Charred bicycles and children's toys littered the small neighborhood, along with a minivan completely gutted by flames.
At least two homes were burned to the ground in the nearby Big Rock neighborhood, a collection of larger homes tucked into the rugged foothills near the Wichita Mountain Wildlife Refuge.
Lt. Gov. Todd Lamb declared a State of Emergency for 33 Oklahoma counties because of extreme or exceptional drought conditions and associated wildfires.
Lamb issued the declaration Friday at the request of Gov. Mary Fallin, who is in Ireland this week attending her daughter's wedding. According to the order, at least 10 fires have been reported in Oklahoma, leading to evacuations in some areas.
"The humidity is really low, there's high winds and it's very rough terrain," said Medicine Park Fire Chief David McCoy. Weather forecasters imposed a red flag warning Friday for temperatures of up to 108 degrees, winds of 20-30 mph and humidity readings below 20 percent.
"I've never seen it in my life as dry as this," said Doug Wright, chief of the Paradise Valley Volunteer Fire Department, which sent 18 firefighters to help battle the blaze. "We never fight major fires in June and July because it's usually green."
Fort Sill Fire Chief Clint Langford said artillery practice takes place regularly at the post's West Range, where the fire started. He said there are several fire breaks along the range to prevent fires, but high winds and woody debris left over from recent ice storms quickly fueled the blaze.
"At no time would we allow live-fire training if it wasn't safe," Langford said. "But we have to train. We're preparing soldiers for war time."
Officials at Fort Sill believe the cause of the fire to be "military training," spokeswoman Emily Kelley said, "but the investigation has not yet started because our firefighters' entire mission at this point is fighting and containing the fire. Once that is accomplished, there will be an investigation into the specific cause."
Besides burning the six houses and seven mobile homes, the fire had also consumed several sheds, barns, detached garages and storage units, Killmer said. At Fort Sill, officials asked post personnel to not water lawns or wash their vehicles until the fire is out.
One firefighter suffered a minor foot injury but no other injuries have been reported, Killmer said.
An Oklahoma National Guard helicopter team from Lexington began dropping water on the fire shortly before noon, and another helicopter was dispatched to help, Killmer said.
The rocky, rough environment made it difficult for firefighters to get their vehicles and equipment into place to fight the wind-whipped fire.Comment on this story
"It's impossible," Wright said. "It's really a defensive fight because of the terrain." He said the strategy has been to set up defensive positions around homes and other structures and "wait for the fire to come to us."
Jim Ware, who lives north of Medicine Park, said he was outside his home Thursday night when a Comanche County sheriff's deputy drove by and told him and neighbors to leave because the fire was half a mile away.
"It was a massive wall of flame," said Ware, 71. "I'd be surprised if they got it under control before it got to the houses on my road."
Another resident, Jackie McKown, said that as she was evacuating Medicine Park on Thursday night, she looked back and "the mountain behind our home was totally in flames."