/ 11 April 2009

Deadly fires, tornadoes rage across US

Rescue workers dug through the rubble left by tornados and firefighters battled deadly wildfires on Saturday after a strong storm system cut a swath of destruction across the United States from Texas to Tennessee.

At least eight people were killed, dozens were injured and hundreds of homes and businesses were reduced to ash or rubble.

One of the fires appears to have been started deliberately, officials said.

“We haven’t proved that there was malice but we do know that the fire was intentionally set,” Jerry Lojka of the Midwest City, Oklahoma fire department told reporters.

The Oklahoman newspaper reported that teenagers were spotted in the area before the fire which destroyed 17 homes was sparked on Thursday.

Oklahoma’s governor declared a state of emergency in 31 counties where 62 people were injured and about 200 homes and business were destroyed by the fires and a tornado which touched down on the eastern edge of the state.

“Our firefighters and first responders have done an outstanding job in the face of daunting fires, and these brave men and women have our heartfelt gratitude. They are true heroes,” Governor Brad Henry said.

“But there is much more to do, and the State of Oklahoma will do everything in its power to ensure help for those people who need it most.”

Three people were killed and 32 homes destroyed in Texas as high winds fueled 49 major fires which burned 40 500 hectares in the Lone Star state and filled the skies with thick clouds of smoke, the Texas Forest Service said.

About 161 homes have been destroyed in drought-stricken Texas since January 1 as wildfires swallowed about 97 000 hectares and the governor of Texas issued an emergency declaration for 199 counties on Friday.

A former television journalist and his wife were among the dead when their home was engulfed in flames Thursday, WFAA news in Dallas reported.

The fires devastated two small towns north of Dallas as high winds and bone dry conditions fuelled the flames which raced across parched fields and swallowed homes, the station reported.

The town of Stoneburg in south-western Montague County, was practically destroyed by fire, officials said.

In Wichita County, a blaze burn and forced the evacuation of 800 homes, including a nursing home, in the town of Electra, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported.

Winds as strong as 112km/h fanned the flames that engulfed 12 counties in the northern part of the state, as the governor’s office activated Texas Military Forces to provide assistance, including two helicopters, in fighting the blazes, the Texas Department of Public Safety said.

The winds eased in Texas on Friday, but firefighters continued to battle 20 major blazes.

A mother and her nine-week-old baby were killed and 35 people were hurt when a tornado tore through the town of Murfreesboro, Tennessee Friday, officials said.

“There was substantial damage,” said Murfreesboro police spokesperson Kyle Evans as he described the twisted path the tornado wove through town.

“We are in a search and rescue mode. We’re going door to door, house to house looking for any potential people who are trapped in their homes.”

Three people were killed and 23 were hurt after a tornado touched down in the town of Mena on Thursday evening, the Arkansas Department of Emergency Management said.

The storms damaged more than 150 homes and businesses in 11 Arkansas counties. – AFP