Date: 4/10/2009

Associated Press Writer

MIDWEST CITY, Okla. (AP) — Firefighters mopped up hot spots Friday from wind-driven wildfires that injured at least 34 people in western and central Oklahoma and destroyed more than 100 homes.

Three people were killed across the state line in Texas.

The fires began Thursday afternoon along the Interstate 35, the main north-south highway through central Oklahoma. They continued to burn past nightfall, fueled by ferocious winds and an abundance of dry, early spring grass and brush. But lighter winds in the region made things easier for firefighters Friday in both states.

“We have in excess of 100 homes that have been destroyed statewide,” Emergency Management Director Albert Ashwood said Friday morning. Officials said the Midwest City fire apparently started at a wrecker service, but the exact cause of it and other fires was still under investigation.

Interstate 35 was back open Friday after being closed for several hours in various locations because of the fires.

Gov. Brad Henry declared a state of emergency for 31 central and southern Oklahoma communities, which allows state agencies to speed the delivery of needed resources.

Residents who were evacuated while the fires raged were allowed to return home. For Sammetra Christmon of Midwest City, there was only a blackened, smoking ruin where her home had been.

“The memories, the photos, this is the house I have worked all my life for,” she said Friday as she and her family picked through the smoldering debris. Her 9-year-old daughter was taking it hard.

“She’s devastated, just in tears this morning,” Christmon said. “This is the only house she’s ever known.”

Water-dropping helicopters couldn’t assist the ground effort Thursday because of winds that gusted to more than 60 mph in some areas.

“Anytime you have high winds and low humidity it’s just the perfect storm for wildfires, and that’s what’s happening here,” Ashwood said.

In northern Texas, firefighters blaze raced across thousands of parched acres Thursday, overrunning the towns of Sunset and Stoneburg and forcing the temporary evacuations in several others.

Montague County Sheriff Paul Cunningham said Friday that a woman died, possibly from a heart attack, after calling for an ambulance Thursday in a fire near Bowie on Thursday.

Two other deaths were reported near Montague, about 80 miles northwest of Dallas. WFAA-TV said the victims were former WFAA reporter Matt Quinn and his wife, Cathy. Their son was injured and was in fair condition at Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas, the station reported.

The Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management said a firefighter helping battle a blaze in Lincoln County, northeast of Oklahoma City, was hospitalized with burns and someone was severely injured after losing control of a vehicle on a smoke-covered road in Stephens County in southern Oklahoma.

The other injuries ranged from minor to moderate, officials said.

At the Midwest City Community Center, where about 75 residents flocked to after flames threatened their homes, Kanisha Busby waited for her parents to arrive. Their home, where she grew up, was destroyed but nobody was hurt.

“It’s hard, but all that stuff is material things that can be replaced; lives can’t be replaced,” Busby said. Residents were given sufficient warning to evacuate, and her father also managed to save his dog, she said.

Susan Staggs, who lives near Midwest City, said Friday that she and her neighbors who gathered at an evacuation point Thursday night could see the glow of flames, not knowing if their homes were being engulfed.

“After dark you could just see the flames crossing the road,” she said. “I had two cats in my house and my horse and goats were still there.” Her home was spared, it turned out, because a pile of gravel and dirt from her neighbor’s driveway project served as a firebreak. But the neighbor’s home was lost.


Associated Press writers Murray Evans in Oklahoma City, Angela K. Brown in Fort Worth, Texas, and Betsy Blaney in Lubbock, Texas, contributed to this report.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.

Date: 2/19/2009

Associated Press Writer

WHITTLESEA, Australia (AP) — The electrician’s tools were incinerated, the trucker’s rig reduced to a useless, burned shell. The deadly wildfires that swept southern Australia destroyed more than lives — they destroyed livelihoods.

As the days since the Feb. 7 blazes wear on, the needs of the survivors grow more complex. Where basic tools of survival like water and food were once enough, residents of the devastated areas now need more: tools to rebuild their lives.

“My biggest point now is getting fathers back to work,” Marisa Pegoraro said Thursday from her chair inside a relief center she has frequented since she and her family narrowly escaped being burned alive in the inferno. “They have to feel like they’re looking after their families.”

As many as 7,500 people were left homeless by the fires that killed at least 208 people almost two weeks ago. These survivors are now living in tents, caravans, borrowed houses or with friends and family. They want to go home. Soon.

In the fire zone, the sound of chain saws felling scorched timber has replaced the rumble of fire trucks pumping water onto smoking ruins as emergency crews work to make the landscape safe for people to return.

The process of rebuilding lost homes is unlikely to begin for months and will take many years, but survivors want to feel that the process is moving forward and they need tools to help clear the rubble from their land and sift through the wreckage.

At Australia’s St. Vincent de Paul Society, a charity, requests are flooding in for wheelbarrows, generators and chain saws, spokeswoman Carol Taylor said.

“They’re going back into their communities,” Taylor said. “They’re wanting tools to clean up what’s left of their property.”

Charities in southern Victoria state have been inundated with donations from across the world since the worst wildfires this sun-blistered country has ever seen.

The disaster’s severity stunned Australia’s 21 million people, who sent more than 100 million Australian dollars ($64 million) to a government-backed Australian Red Cross fund in the first week, with the total still growing.

This week, the Salvation Army asked people to stop donating material goods, saying it has all it needs, though financial donations are still welcome.

Still, the donations pour in.

Dust rises into the sky as massive delivery trucks roll across the dry earth surrounding a relief center in Whittlesea, a donation hub for surrounding towns that were obliterated in the inferno. Warehouses, sporting fields and schools across the region are jammed with everything from jewelry and toiletries to cutlery and cars.

The Whittlesea relief center is piled high with boxes of food and crates of water, mountains of books and toys, stacks of linen and china. The most coveted item? Work boots.

“Initially, because the ground was still so hot and the ashes so deep in some places, they were just such a priority,” said volunteer Janine Morgan.

They are just as important now that families are getting down to the work of clearing the properties to start rebuilding.

Cleaning up the scraps is just one challenge. In tents at the relief center, the homeless can get counseling for grief and advice on how to lodge insurance claims. They can search a makeshift post office for their mail. Volunteer therapists offer massages and others a shampoo and blow-dry for dirty, dusty heads.

“In the first few days, everybody was quite shell-shocked and that’s started to wear off,” said Morgan, whose house was spared by a sudden wind change that pushed the flames away. “The reality sets in. It’s not pretty.”

Pegoraro, on one of what have become regular stops at the center, knows firsthand the sting of reality. The 47-year-old sits among the plastic tubs of donated clothes, her eyes welling with tears as she tells of her family’s narrow escape from death.

On that awful day, she and her husband covered their two children in wet blankets and hid them under a table in the garage as the flames roared through their home. They prayed. And then the house collapsed. Weak from smoke inhalation, the family fled outside and huddled in a paddock all night as the inferno raged around them.

In the aftermath, Pegoraro has not only sought help for her family but has also worked to help members of her razed town, Kinglake, get back on their feet.

One trucker who lost his rig in the blaze was going to have to wait six months until insurance paid for a new one, so she found a donor willing to lend him a replacement. She gathered tools so an electrician who lost everything could go back to work.

It is critical to get the displaced residents enough help to let them return to their properties, Pergoraro said. Children do not want to be relocated away from their friends, and adults need to stay close to their family and friends.

“We need to be here for each other,” she said. “And I think emotionally we need to be here for each other as well.”

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.

Date: 2/15/2009

Associated Press Writer

WHITTLESEA, Australia (AP) — Australians mourning the lives lost in horrific wildfires last week sought comfort at churches Sunday even as firefighters continued to battle a dozen blazes still burning in the state.

Fire engines raced past the small, 140-year-old Christ Church in Whittlesea while the Archbishop of Melbourne was leading a service, their sirens briefly drowning out a song.

More than 180 people were killed and 1,800 homes destroyed when some 400 blazes — some thought to have been deliberately set — tore across Victoria state on Feb. 7 in Australia’s worst-ever wildfire disaster.

Across the 1,500-square mile (3,900-square kilometer) fire zone, residents and friends gathered at church services to pray for the dead. The scene was repeated at churches across the country.

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd attended a service in the town of Wandong, where he joined residents in placing leaves and flowers into a bowl of water in a symbol of remembrance and rebuilding.

In Whittlesea, about 60 miles (100 kilometers) north of the state capital of Melbourne, Governor General Quentin Bryce joined about 200 people who overflowed into Christ Church’s yard for an hourlong service.

“You could feel the togetherness there,” Bryce said. “It will give people support and comfort in their grief.”

Police have arrested a man in connection with one of the fires and he will appear in court Monday to face charges of arson causing death, intentionally lighting a wildfire, and possessing child pornography. His identity is being concealed by the court because of the risk of reprisal attacks against him or his family.

One other fire, which nearly destroyed the village of Marysville, is also being investigated as arson.

In another blaze, which destroyed Kinglake, fire victims have launched a class action lawsuit against power supplier SP Ausnet, arguing that downed power lines sparked and set fire to a nearby pine forest.

“We stand ready to assist the relevant authorities with their inquiries if it is necessary for us to do so,” SP Ausnet spokeswoman Louisa Graham said in a statement.

Victoria Chief Commissioner Christine Nixon said Sunday that police were aware of the reported class action suit. She declined to answer directly when asked if police had removed a section of power line and a power pole as evidence.

“At this stage we are not able to confirm how it started,” Nixon told Nine Network television. “I understand there is some legal action that people are taking, but at this stage we’re still investigating its cause.”

Visitors from outside the fire-ravaged area also attended church services in the fire zone Sunday to show support for the families affected by the disaster.

“I didn’t know anybody directly affected by the fires, but this is something that’s touched the hearts of everybody,” said Sharyn Mitzzi, who drove up from Melbourne with her husband, Raymond.

They heard the vicar on the radio last week and decided to come to Whittlesea to offer their home to an affected family for a weekend respite.

Whittlesea has become a center for relief efforts for neighboring towns such as Kinglake, where scores of people died and which was almost completely destroyed.

An outpouring of charity has raised more than 90 million Australian dollars ($60 million) in donations to official relief funds.

Community Services Minister Jenny Macklin announced Sunday that families whose homes were destroyed would get a AU$10,000 cash payment to start the rebuilding process. The federal and Victoria government have promised millions of dollars more and say a comprehensive rebuilding strategy will be released later this week.

Wildfires are common each Australian summer, when tinder-dry forests ignite in hot and windy conditions and can burn for weeks on end. Government researchers say the causes of up to half the 60,000 fires in Australia each year are suspicious, with non-suspect causes being lightning strikes, power line mishaps and human activity such as sparks from power tools.

Firefighters, including specialists flown in from the United States, continued to battle about a dozen blazes in Victoria, and a pall of dark smoke hung over a huge area, including Melbourne.

Cooler, even wet conditions were allowing firefighters to make good progress in containing the fire, the Country Fire Association said.

In Whittlesea, volunteer firefighter Jeff Rowden, 45, said Sunday’s church service brought solace to his brigade.

“I think it’s good to be around people who shared the same thing and know what you’ve been through, so we can get back to our normal lives,” Rowden said.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.

Date: 2/14/2009

SANTA BARBARA, Calif. (AP) — Ten people who built a campfire won’t be charged with igniting a wildfire last fall that destroyed more than 200 homes in Santa Barbara and neighboring Montecito, prosecutors said Friday.

Santa Barbara County District Attorney Christie Stanley said investigators could not prove who caused the wildfire that blackened more than 65 square miles and destroyed rows of multimillion-dollar homes, including actor Christopher Lloyd’s $11 million home in Montecito. Two people were seriously injured in the blaze.

Investigators had found evidence that the campfire was lit in Montecito about 14 hours before the wildfire erupted Nov. 13, but prosecutors concluded they could not establish who started the wildfire.

“Unfortunately, that’s not an unusual result,” said Santa Barbara County Fire Capt. Eli Iskow, whose department helped investigate the cause of the fire.

Stanley said the people who lit the campfire would be charged with misdemeanor trespassing and unlawfully building and using a campfire without permission.

The two misdemeanor counts carry a maximum penalty of a year in county jail, up to a $1,000 fine and three to five years of probation, Stanley said.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.

Date: 2/14/2009

Associated Press Writer

SYDNEY (AP) — Outrage over the Australian wildfires that killed more than 180 people last week was white hot after police said some of the blazes may have been deliberately set.

The prime minister said the culprits should “rot in jail,” and government officials threatened the maximum charge: murder.

But experts note the difficulty of proving a link between the act of striking a match and causing a death.

Police on Friday charged a man with one count of arson causing death and intentionally lighting a wildfire near the town of Churchill that killed at least 21 people. The official death toll from the fires that raged through southeastern Victoria state Feb. 7 is 181, but officials expect the tally to exceed 200.

Wildfires burn annually in places with hot summers where people live near wooded areas — Australia, California, Spain, France. Foul play is also common.

A report last month by the Australian Institute of Criminology concluded about half the 60,000 wildfires each year are either deliberately set or suspicious.

Few arrests are made, and even fewer convictions secured.

One major complication is that wildfires often merge, making it difficult to link an arson fire with the blaze that eventually kills people, said Damon Muller, who has researched arsonists for the institute.

“If someone starts a fire and that joins to another fire, how responsible is that person?” Muller said.

In such cases, prosecutors generally call in experts who examine the burn damage to determine where two blazes join and their direction, said Thomas Fee, former president of the Maryland-based International Association of Arson Investigators.

But experts for the defense could easily testify that the defendant’s fire alone wouldn’t have been enough to hurt anyone, Fee said.

Also tricky is proving that an arsonist either intended to kill someone or inflict grievous bodily harm, Muller said.

Others say it can be done.

“It’s not as difficult as you think,” said Los Angeles Deputy District Attorney Jean Daly, who spent nine years prosecuting arson cases in California.

Under California law, arson can qualify as felony murder, which allows for a murder charge against a defendant who doesn’t intend harm.

One man, Raymond Lee Oyler, is currently on trial in California for allegedly setting a 2006 wildfire that killed five firefighters. He has pleaded not guilty to 45 counts including murder and arson and faces the death penalty if convicted.

Harder than proving a murder charge in a wildfire arson is convincing a jury the defendant committed arson in the first place, Daly said.

“You have to establish the links,” she said.

That task falls to investigators, who first hunt out eyewitnesses, said Ross Brogan, a former New South Wales state fire investigator and a fire investigation lecturer at Australia’s Charles Sturt University.

Finding the fire’s source depends on determining where it started. To do that, Brogan said, investigators interview firefighters who can detail the intensity of the flames, and study weather data to determine wind direction — both of which help investigators track the fire to its source.

The major problem is that physical evidence often burns up — or is removed by the arsonists themselves, Fee said.

“For a long number of years, they said that arson was the hardest crime to prove,” Fee said. “If you don’t have an eyewitness to this, it all becomes circumstantial evidence — and the more you try to convict on circumstantial evidence, the tougher it gets.”

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.

Date: 11/8/2008

Associated Press Writer

FORT WORTH, Texas (AP) _ An attorney says more than 100 families have settled a lawsuit with a utility whose damaged equipment sparked a devastating wildfire.

Attorney Bill Altman says the last of five settlements with Oncor was finalized this week. He says the total is “substantially” more than $5 million.

The 2006 fire in the ranching town of Ringgold burned about 40 homes and all but a handful of buildings on Main Street. Eleven people were injured.

The state fire marshal says the blaze started after failing supports on a telephone pole allowed electric lines to ignite dry grass below. The blaze was deemed accidental.

Oncor declined to comment on the specifics of the settlement but insists it was not responsible for the fire.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press.