Dangerous fire weather fanning large, fast-moving wildfires

Fires have already claimed lives of people and livestock.

As regional drought intensifies, dangerous fire weather conditions favoring large, fast-moving wildfires will exist across southern New Mexico, much of west/central Texas and southwestern into north-central Oklahoma, the National Weather Service reported April 13. Numerous wildfires have already developed, with large, dangerous wildfires rapidly expanding across northwestern Oklahoma, New Mexico and now Texas.

The Norman, Okla., National Weather Service (NWS) reported in an April 12 wildfire update that warm, windy and dry weather will lead to extreme wildfire conditions across parts of Oklahoma and north Texas over the next couple of days.

“We’ll see very warm and even hot temperatures, very low relative humidity and very strong winds. When you combine those weather ingredients with the dry grass and vegetation across the area, the potential is there for wildfires to start more easily and grow and spread very quickly,” the NWS report stated. “It literally only takes one tiny spark to start a fire on a day like this.”

In Oklahoma, the “34 Complex fire” (Woodward County) and the “Rhea fire” (Dewey County) have burned an estimated 115,000 acres and 82,000 acres, respectively, and both are 0% contained.

Eric Shelton, a cow/calf producer from Butler, Okla., which is near the Rhea fire, told Feedstuffs that the wind has been crazy over the last few days.

“It’s already blowing over 30 mph, up to 40 mph, today. None of it is contained. There have already been a couple of guys killed. It’s moving ... so fast,” he said, adding, “I talked to a guy this morning, and one of his neighbors lost 60 cows last night. I’m sure there are already hundreds that have burned up. It just happens so fast. I don’t know of any homes (that have burned) yet, but I’m sure there are.”

Shelton said the wind was turning Friday and then was expected to turn even more and come back out of the north, which will put his operation at risk. “It started just eight miles north of our farm, but as of last night, from where it started, the fire line was 25 miles long,” he said.

One of the biggest challenges, Shelton said, is that the area used to be cropland, but 75-80% of the land has gone back to grass for cow/calf operations. “That’s why now we are at such high risk for these fires, because we don’t have any cropland to stop anything,” he explained.

He added that while his operation has been fortunate in the past, when there is a fire in the area, it’s hard to contain it. “The problem is that once it gets to the Canadian River, there’s no way to get to a lot of it,” Shelton said, adding that there’s so much cover in the river bottom, and the cedar trees have grown up. “When I was watching it yesterday, the flames were 150-200 ft. tall going through the cedars. The big helicopters couldn’t put a dent in it with the wind.”

Getting to the fire or having a good place to fight it or build fire breaks is difficult, he explained.

Meanwhile, in New Mexico, the “206 fire” is burning between Tatum and Milnes, N.M., but has now moved into Texas; it is also 0% contained.

“The fire has forced the evacuation of at least 12 homes on Bledsoe Road in New Mexico. This fire is estimated at 60,000 acres," Wendy Mason, wildfire prevention and communications coordinator for the New Mexico State Forestry Division, reported. “Resources from Texas are working on suppression efforts from their end of the fire. Additional resources are also being called in to assist on the New Mexico side.”

Farther north into central Kansas and southeastern Nebraska, NWS said critical to extremely critical fire weather conditions may occur on a much more conditional/spotty basis “as the window of opportunity for heightened fire weather risk will be confined to a narrow corridor immediately west of the dry line.”

While the fires haven’t reached the record levels seen last year, many areas affected by the 2017 wildfires are still rebuilding and recovering. The National Interagency Fire Center reported that 66,131 fires burned 9.8 million acres in 2017, the third highest on record. Nearly 1.5 million acres of those burned in Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas, claiming lives, livestock, buildings, equipment, hay, feed and miles of fence line.

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