Less than a year after devastating wildfires raced through Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas, the Central and Southern Plains are facing higher-than-usual potential of wildland fires through April, according to Kansas State University scientists and a government organization that assesses such risks.
In early March 2017, human lives were lost along with livestock, fences, homes and structures as many wildfires scorched hundreds of thousands of acres on the High Plains, burning everything in their path.
The National Interagency Coordination Center warns there’s an elevated risk again this year because of dry conditions in several states, including much of Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas.
The center has representatives from the Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Indian Affairs, National Park Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Federal Emergency Management Administration, and the National Association of State Foresters.
In their “National Significant Wildland Fire Potential Outlook” report just released, they assessed current weather and fuel conditions and how those will evolve in the next few months. This helps fire managers decide how to better protect life, property and natural resources, increase firefighter safety and effectiveness and reduce firefighting costs.
KANSAS AT SIGNIFICANT RISK
Kansas appears again in the crosshairs of potential fires. Looking at February through April, the report highlighted all but the northeast part of the state as having above-normal significant large fire potential.
This will require mobilizing resources beyond the typical local response, stated a Kansas State University Research and Extension news release.
“Some parts of Kansas, especially the south-central and southwest areas, saw above-normal moisture during the growing season, with many reports of large to significant fuel loads as a result,” Chip Redmond, meteorologist with the K-State Mesonet and an incident meteorologist, said in the release.
“Areas west of US-81 have seen considerable drying the previous months with many locations exceeding 90 days without a wetting rain. This, combined with persistent dry air masses, sunny skies, and breezy winds are rapidly depleting any remnant moisture.”
While that’s not unusual for this time of year, any deficit developed will be difficult to overcome without a period of above-normal moisture between now and March, he said.
“With recent forecasts of mid- to long-range dryness continuing, we are setting the stage for some large fires in Kansas with heavy fuel loading and flash-type drought,” Redmond warned.
DTN Senior Ag Meteorologist Michael Palmerino noted the most recent drought monitor (www.droughtmonitor.unl.edu) released Jan. 18 shows the problem getting worse.
“Dryness continues to intensify in the southwest Plains with the latest drought monitor map indicating extreme drought in the eastern panhandle of Texas, northwest Oklahoma and southwest Kansas,” Palmerino said. “This translates to about 80% to 90% short to very short topsoil moisture.”
While there was some precipitation last week in the High Plains, the amounts were generally less than half an inch, although east-central Kansas got close to an inch, reported the Drought Monitor summary this week. “Dryness in southern Kansas and eastern Colorado continued with an expansion of the severe drought conditions to the west, incorporating all of southwestern Kansas and extreme southeastern Colorado. Extreme drought conditions were also pushed more to the west in southern Kansas.”
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“The main reason for the worsening drought is due to La Nina conditions which have been around since September of 2017,” explained Palmerino. La Nina events are when there is the sustained cooling of sea surface temperatures in the central and eastern tropical Pacific Ocean.
“La Ninas tend to correlate with dry falls in the Southern Plains. This has been compounded in the winter by the climatological dryness that occurs,” Palmerino said.
“We see little change going forward as we head into late winter and early spring (February to March) with storm systems expected to contain limited moisture as they move across the region but a lot of wind. This should lead to another active wildfire season,” said Palmerino.
PLANT GROWTH CONTRIBUTES TO FIRES
Other factors helped to set up the dangerous wildfire season ahead.
Precipitation received during the crop growing season (April to September) influences the upcoming fire season. In 2015 and 2016, above-normal precipitation encouraged plant growth. Unfortunately, that contributed to large fires the following winters.
Despite a marginally drier period in 2017, the timing of above-normal moisture received in April and May was critical for supplying ample grass and fuel growth.
“This increased fuel load (plant growth) is a large concern for the next few months, which are typically the driest period of the year for Kansas,” said Jason Hartman, the statewide fire protection specialist with the Kansas Forest Service. “With any strong system, the potential exists for large fires similar to what we have seen the last two years.”
Much of Kansas began to dry out last September. Areas of western Kansas haven’t received even a tenth of an inch of rain in more than 90 days.
Above-normal temperatures in November and early December, combined with gusty winds, dried the soil surface and the drought has expanded across much of Kansas.
European and U.S. weather models, as of Jan. 18, were in fair to good agreement for the six- to 10-day outlook for the Southern Plains. DTN’s meteorologists called for near- to below-normal precipitation in the 10-day outlook for the Southern Plains. However, temperatures were also predicted to average above normal for much of the period except somewhat cooler near the end.
Fire watch advisories have already been appearing in recent days in some areas such as the Texas and Oklahoma Panhandles because of dryness, warm weather, low humidity and high winds.
TRENDS BEYOND JANUARY
Beyond January, trends are more difficult to discern, according to Mary Knapp, assistant Kansas climatologist.
The February-through-March period is typically very dry in Kansas, averaging only 3.1 inches of total precipitation statewide. Any precipitation that does occur will only have short-term impacts until spring rains arrive.
“The biggest concern during the next few months will be the occurrence of very warm days. These are typically associated with very dry air and high winds in advance of a strong storm system,” said Knapp.
“Kansas’ largest wildfires are usually dependent on the shifting winds and the lack of moisture associated with these systems. Normally, Kansas will see several of these systems before one can eventually tap into the Gulf moisture and provide much-needed rainfall.”
Finally, the influence of precipitation type on wildland fires is important, Knapp stated. Snowfall can knock down or flatten standing grasses. This removes the vertical fuel load and can significantly decrease fire behavior. Despite some recent snows, a lack of heavy snowfall through January will continue to make grasses available and lead to suppression difficulties until a significant snowfall occurs.
Russ Quinn can be reached at email@example.com
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