Drought raising risk of more western U.S. wildfires

By Christine Stebbins

CHICAGO (Reuters) – Severe drought conditions across eastern Colorado and the western half of Kansas and Oklahoma are worsening the outlook for more wild fires in the region, climatologists said.

“When you have the kind of dry pattern we had over the winter, that’s when we really get concerned,” said Mary Knapp, state climatologist for Kansas. “Unfortunately, the outlook is for drought to persist in the west and expand eastward.”

The southern Plains, an area rich for farming wheat, corn and cattle, has had below-normal rain and snow since last summer with much of the area now suffering from severe to extreme drought, creating a tinderbox in many areas.

“Fire potential continues across eastern New Mexico, west Texas and eastern Colorado due to high wind speeds,” the National Interagency Fire Center said on Friday.

The Center reported 21 active large fires in 11 states the past week, affecting 80,292 acres, with 13 new fires started.

For the year to date a total of 530,611 acres have been affected by fires compared with 140,617 acres in the same period a year ago. The 10-year average for acres affected by fire at this time is 449,868, the Center said.

Grass fires erupted across Colorado, Kansas and Oklahoma last week as the dryness coupled with low humidity and high winds made conditions ripe for wildland fires. A wind-whipped wildfire covering 1,600 acres forced the evacuation of 9,500 homes southeast of Denver, Colorado, on Thursday.

Firefighters battled a fire affecting 38,000 acres in Stanton County, Kansas, near the Colorado state line last Tuesday. That fire was about 90 percent contained by Friday.

“Almost all of eastern Colorado has been very dry since the middle of August. It’s been drier than usual. Once you have a fire, rapid spread is very easy on these low humidity afternoons,” said Colorado state climatologist Nolan Doesken.

“Several eastern Colorado counties have outside burning restrictions in place and others could implement them very soon,” Doesken said.

Climate experts point to the ample dead grass and brush across thousands of acres of western cattle grazing rangelands that can provide fuel for fires. A couple years of prolific rains have spurred vegetative growth, they noted.

“The thing about the winter fuels or the dead grass, if you have a day when the humidity is real low and winds are real high, you’ve still got a high fire danger,” said Albert Sutherland, agricultural director for Mesonet, a weather monitoring network of 120 stations in Oklahoma.

“And when you’re in a drought situation you have more of those kind of days,” he added.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Drought Monitor last week indicated severe to extreme drought in the southern Plains in a wide swathe from Arizona to eastern Colorado through western Kansas, Oklahoma, Arkansas and eastern Louisiana.

So far grass fires have been contained to grazing lands while winter wheat fields have mostly avoided fire dangers.

“The brush fires so far are just burning off dead material,” Sutherland said. “As we go forward that becomes more severe and the biggest impact is just no rain. So things like wheat in the southwest are really starting to suffer. People are beginning to abandon some of those fields.”

Big fires hit northwestern Oklahoma earlier this week.

“That is wheat country where the wheat looks pretty good,” said Oklahoma State University crop specialist Jeff Edwards. “But that doesn’t really affect the wheat acres. It’s not wheat ground that’s burning, it’s the range land and pastures.”

(Reporting by Christine Stebbins. Editing by Peter Bohan)

Drought raising risk of more western U.S. wildfires