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Drought and fire risks elevated for all of Southwest

Shelley E. Huguley wildfire-vfd-olton
Olton Volunteer Fire Department responds to a grass fire in Lamb County in 2018.
'Witching Hour' warnings for the Southwest issued as drought spreads, fire risk warnings rise

Standing at the doorstep of the early spring season, the National Weather Service (NWS) and climate prediction forecasters attending a national briefing in Albuquerque last week warned local government officials and farmers of developing drought conditions across the Southwest, the High Plains, and growing areas in the Midwest.

During that briefing climatologists warned that exceptionally dry conditions and high winds over the winter months have resulted in dry livestock tanks, decimated wheat crops, and thousands of charred acres stretching from Kansas to Texas and west to Arizona as wildfires ramped up in recent weeks.

Texas State Climatologist John Nielson-Gammon warned forecasters, government and industry officials who attended the briefing that some areas across the region have received little or no rain over the last five months, creating what he called the longest stretch of dry weather in decades for many locations. 

Nielson-Gammon warned that a shortage of rain and above-average temperatures has helped to spread drought conditions in Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Kansas and Colorado, where wildfires have already become a serious issue. On Sunday, Mar. 18, the USDA Forest Service, who maps current wildfires across the nation, reported no less than 41 wildfire outbreaks were active in Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, New Mexico and Colorado.

Nearly 20,000 acres have burned across the Texas Panhandle in the last week while Oklahoma may be suffering the worst of dry conditions and outbreak of wildfires according to wire reports issued over the weekend. Oklahoma Forestry Services requested out-of-state assistance from fire crews late last week to address flash fires that have erupted across an area suffering from exceptional drought conditions.

A Forestry Service official reported (Sunday) that fire crews and equipment are in enroute from Alabama, Kentucky and Louisiana to help contain the fires, which are spreading as a result of low moisture and fanned by high winds.

NWS officials issued fire warnings last week for most of Oklahoma, the Texas Panhandle, southern Kansas, northeastern New Mexico, southeastern Colorado and southeastern Missouri.

During the drought briefing, Niels-Gammon illustrated the number of wildfires and the spreading drought conditions using a series of satellite images at the national briefing. The photos revealed smoke plumes moving across the Southwest and noted in some areas the consecutive days without rain is the worst or record and warned conditions are expected to worsen in the weeks and months ahead.

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