The amount of moisture received across the United States’ southern high plains since October has been ridiculously low, and forecasters warned Friday that the intensifying drought has resulted in critical fire danger and some winter wheat crops being reduced to stubble across several states.
Texas State Climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon said during a national briefing that some areas in the region have received less than one-tenth of an inch of rain in the past five months and that’s perhaps the longest period of time these areas have been without rain since record-keeping began decades ago.
The lack of rain combined with above-normal temperatures across parts of New Mexico, Colorado, Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas have left livestock watering tanks dry, agricultural fields wind-blown and rangeland charred.
“Of course, you can never predict something this severe several months in advance but we did know going in it was going to be a challenging cold season for the southern plains,” Nielsen-Gammon said.
He showed satellite images of smoke and dust plumes moving across the region and warned that the warm and dry weather is expected to continue through the spring. That could mean continued crop damage, dwindling irrigation supplies and more fires.
“Any precipitation that does fall over the next three months is likely to evaporate relatively quickly at the same time that crops and forage are requiring more water because of the high temperatures,” he said. “That means if and when the rains do return, drought recovery … will proceed slower than expected.”
Due to the dry conditions, the National Weather Service issued fire warnings Friday for most of Oklahoma, the Texas Panhandle, southern Kansas, northeastern New Mexico, southeastern Colorado and southeastern Missouri.
Oklahoma Forestry Services has already requested and received firefighters and equipment from Alabama, Kentucky and Louisiana because of the fire threat. Additional firefighters and equipment from Georgia and Mississippi are on the way.
Oklahoma Forestry Commission spokeswoman Michelle Finch-Walker said early to mid-afternoon is the time many fires begin.
“We call that the witching hour. It’s getting warmer, the humidity is dropping and wind gusts are picking up,” she said.
For Oklahoma, this marks the first time exceptional drought – the worst category of drought – has made an appearance since May 2015. Several counties in the northwest and the panhandle have gone 155 days or more with less than one-quarter of an inch of rain, marking just a fraction of average precipitation for this time of year.
The latest map shows swaths of red – indicating extreme to exceptional drought – covering the southern high plains and the Four Corners region where the borders of New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona and Utah meet.
In New Mexico, the lack of water and an unseasonably warm winter have already resulted in a high demand for hay, and some livestock owners have been forced to trim their herds. The last time this much of the state was grappling with extreme drought was July 2014.
Winter wheat crops in Texas are also struggling. Officials there say almost one-third of the crop is rated as poor.
Wildfires in Kansas have already burned thousands of acres and agricultural officials were prepared to move hay to ranchers who need it most or work with the federal government to access additional grazing land.
Kansas Gov. Jeff Colyer declared a drought emergency this week, citing the persistent dry conditions and growing fire hazards.
That state’s average precipitation over the past six months was only two-thirds of the normal rate and in January and February the statewide average precipitation was even less, at less than half of normal.
(Associated Press writer Ken Miller contributed from Oklahoma City.)
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