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Wildfire risk high in the Great Plains

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For the next few days, weather in parts of the Great Plains will be prime for wildfires and brush fires. If people aren’t careful, the slightest spark could ignite flames that will be spread quickly by swift winds. It’s a situation usually associated with the hotter months of the year, but fires can pop up in the winter, too. One recent example is the Thomas Fire in southern California in December of 2017. Another is a series of wildfires that scorched hundreds of acres in western Oklahoma in January of 2018.

The ground will be especially dry and tinder-like today and Valentine’s Day across the following areas – southeastern Colorado, northeastern New Mexico, the panhandles of Oklahoma and Texas and southwestern Kansas. Humidity will be very low (less than 10 percent in some areas) and wind gusts will reach 40 to 60 miles per hour. In addition, high temperatures will be about 10 to 20 degrees above normal for mid-February, ranging from the mid-60s to lower 70s.

Warmer temperatures and lower relative humidity make the fuels for fires more receptive to ignition. Stronger winds supply oxygen to fire, preheating the fuels in the path of the fire and they transport embers that can subsequently start fires downwind. When hot, dry and windy conditions occur simultaneously, wildfires can spread quickly.

Red Flag Warnings have been issued by the National Weather Service (NWS) for the areas at risk, lasting until this evening when winds begin dying down. However, they may be posted again on Thursday as winds pick back up. Also, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Storm Prediction Center has described the fire weather outlook for the areas as “Critical,” which means people should be vigilant and extra careful not to do anything that may start a fire. The short-term forecasts call for fair skies and little to no chance for rain or storms.

 Fire Weather Outlook for Wednesday, February 13, 2019.  (Source: NOAA)
Fire Weather Outlook for Wednesday, February 13, 2019. (Source: NOAA)

Although there are no reported wildfires in these areas right now, all that’s needed to get one going is a spark. Typically, wildfires and brush fires are started by careless people, but we can stop feeding the flames by following these guidelines:

• Properly discard cigarettes
• Keep vehicles off dry grass
• Avoid activities using open flames or sparks
• Remember that power equipment can create sparks
• Obey burn bans
• Pay attention to local weather forecasts

However, sometimes the spark comes from Mother Nature. The most common is lightning from dry thunderstorms striking trees, but strong winds can cause power lines to spark, leading to fires below if the ground is too dry.

In extreme cases, fires can create their own weather. According to the NWS, in April 2018, the Mallard Fire in the Texas Panhandle started a pyrocumulonimbus, a severe thunderstorm that produced 1-inch diameter hail. Then on July 26, 2018 the Carr Fire near Redding, California spawned a large fire vortex – a larger, more intense fire whirl – that caused damage equivalent to an EF-3 tornado. It had estimated winds of 143 mph.

If any fires do occur in the “Critical” areas the next couple of days, truckers may run into areas of low visibility from smoke. This could happen anywhere from Colorado Springs, Colorado to Guymon, Oklahoma, and along the I-40 corridor from Amarillo to Albuquerque. The gusty winds will also make it risky for deadheading or hauling light loads. Carriers may want to wait until later in the week to send drivers through this region, or find alternate routes.

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Nick Austin, Director of Weather Analytics and Senior Meteorologist

In his 17 years of weather forecasting experience, Nick worked on air at WBBJ-TV and WRCB-TV, including time spent doing weather analysis and field reporting. He received his Bachelor of Science in Meteorology from Florida State University as well as a Bachelor of Science in Management from Georgia Institute of Technology. Nick is also a member of the American Meteorological Society and National Weather Association. As a member of the weather team at WBBJ-TV in Jackson, Tennessee, Nick was nominated for a Mid-South Emmy for live coverage of a major tornado outbreak in 2008. As part of the weather team at WRCB-TV in Chattanooga, Tennessee, Nick shared the Chattanooga Times-Free Press Best of the Best award for “Best Weather Team” for eight consecutive years. Nick earned his National Weather Association Broadcasting Seal in 2005.