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Firefighters surround Oklahoma blaze in Woodward County as high fire danger continues

WOODWARD — Two days after the blaze began, firefighters had a 57,000-acre wildfire surrounded Thursday afternoon, an emergency management official said.

The wildfire, which forestry officials have dubbed the 350 Complex, began Tuesday as four separate fires before merging into a single blaze on Wednesday. Forestry officials say the fire began when power lines came in contact with dry grass and leaves.

Matt Lehenbauer, Woodward County's emergency manager, said the firefighters had managed to keep the fire away from populated areas. Officially, the fire was only 20 percent contained Thursday afternoon. But Lehenbauer said more favorable weather allowed firefighters to build a perimeter around that fire. About 4 p.m. Thursday, it hadn't escaped that perimeter, he said.

"The winds have died down, so it's much better than we've seen for the past couple of days," he said.

The fire has scorched at least a few buildings in the area. Officials don't yet have a damage assessment, and it isn't clear whether the buildings were homes, out buildings or other structures.

Tuesday, the fire threatened a chemical plant near Woodward, but Lehenbauer said firefighters built a fire break around the factory, and the fire since has moved away.

One of the biggest challenges firefighters have encountered is a series of steep canyons along the Cimarron River, on the north end of Woodward County.

The river has helped keep the fire from creeping farther north into Woods County. But the fire has swept through the canyons, burning the red cedar trees along the banks of the river. The canyons are too rugged for fire trucks to traverse, Lehenbauer said.

“They're typical of what you'd think of in an old Western," Lehenbauer said. "That's what we're dealing with.”

Crews dropped water from planes to try to fight the fire in the canyons, Lehenbauer said. Several single-engine air tankers and twin-engine CL-415 Super Scoopers are all on scene to battle the fire from the air, forestry officials said.

Wednesday, Gov. Mary Fallin declared a state of emergency in 10 counties affected by wildfires: Alfalfa, Blaine, Creek, Dewey, Garfield, Grant, Harper, Logan, Major and Woodward. Fallin issued a similar declaration last week for Woods County. Both declarations remain in effect for 30 days.

Hannah Anderson, a spokeswoman for Oklahoma Forestry Services, said firefighters from Arkansas, Tennessee and Louisiana are assisting Oklahoma crews. Forestry officials also requested a fire management team from Texas A&M University to assist in coordinating the response to the fire, Anderson said.

The out-of-state teams have helped Oklahoma forestry officials manage an increasingly difficult situation, Anderson said. Although the 350 Complex is the largest fire in the state at the moment, firefighters also were battling about 10 smaller grass fires Tuesday and Wednesday in other parts of the state, she said. Help from other states has kept Oklahoma's resources from being stretched too thin to do any good anywhere, she said.

Fire danger is expected to be lower but still elevated on Friday, with forecasters predicting calmer winds. But Saturday and Sunday are expected to bring near-critical fire danger, with strong winds and warm, dry conditions.

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 ›