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Wildfire in northwest Oklahoma scorches 85 square miles

WOODWARD — Four separate wildfires merged into one large blaze Wednesday afternoon, burning buildings and charring about 85 square miles of northwest Oklahoma range land, forestry officials said.

The blaze, which officials have dubbed the 350 Complex, began Tuesday afternoon when a power line fell to the ground, sparking a grass fire. The blaze spread quickly, driven by high winds and warm, dry conditions, and by Wednesday morning, the fire covered 55,308 acres.

George Geissler, director of Oklahoma Forestry Services, said Wednesday afternoon that officials didn't yet have a damage estimate from the fire. But at least a few buildings had burned, he said, and the fire continues to threaten residents in northern Woodward County.

"The fire is actively burning and forcing some firefighters to do some really good work," Geissler said.

Geissler, who was stationed several miles east at the department's temporary command post at Alabaster Caverns State Park, said dark columns of smoke were visible from the fire.

Emergency management officials issued a voluntary evacuation order Tuesday for Freedom, a small community about 28 miles west of Alva. Woods County Emergency Management Director Steve Foster says the evacuation advisory in Freedom expired late Tuesday after the fire's northeastern front stalled on the west bank of the Cimmaron River.

Hannah Anderson, a spokeswoman for the forestry service, said a firefighter was taken to the hospital Tuesday with symptoms of heat exhaustion. No other injuries were reported, she said.

Also on Tuesday, firefighters worked to keep the blaze from reaching an iodine factory near Woodward. Matt Lehenbauer, Woodward County emergency management director, said firefighters tried to protect the factory by parking their fire trucks around its perimeter. Flames jumped over the vehicles and burned all the way around the plant before the winds shifted, diminishing the threat, Lehenbauer said.

About 200 firefighters were battling the blaze Wednesday afternoon, Lehenbauer said. Several air tankers, including a large tanker flown in from New Mexico, were also on hand to fight the fire from the air, he said. Although firefighters were struggling to contain the fire Wednesday afternoon, Lehenbauer said cooler conditions and higher humidity Wednesday night and Thursday morning would give crews an opportunity to make headway against it.

Forecasters predict elevated fire danger Thursday across much of central and western Oklahoma. Friday is expected to bring low fire danger, but forecasters predict high fire dangers will return Saturday and continue through the weekend.

Brigette Williams, a spokeswoman for the American Red Cross, said volunteers were operating five canteens across the state to support firefighters and other emergency workers responding to wildfires.

Red Cross workers will open evacuation centers at the request of county emergency managers, she said.

Forestry officials are discouraging residents in high fire-danger areas from outdoor burning or any other activity that could spark a fire. Officials also said it's important for residents to report any signs of fire to their local fire departments.

Contributing: The Associated Press

Silas Allen

Silas Allen is a news reporter for The Oklahoman. He is a Missouri native and a 2008 graduate of the University of Missouri. Read more ›