Officials urge caution as critical, red-flag fire conditions expected across region

The forces of nature don’t appear to be with the Texas South Plains and Panhandle these days.

 

The positives from last year’s wet summer — greener lawns and possibly lower water bills — have given way to the negatives of this year’s record-breaking dry winter, turning the grass that grew in May into brown, dry kindling.

And weather and fire officials will once again cross their fingers and hope for the best today, but warning area residents to be on alert, forecasting a critical fire danger and bringing more firefighting resources to the region.

“I think we’re going to have more of these days in the future with the abundance dry fuel, little precipitation and low humidity,” said Phillip Truitt, the public information officer with the Texas A&M Forest Service.

The National Weather Service in Lubbock issued a fire weather watch for the South Plains Tuesday, with sustained winds from 20 to 25 mph, gusts above 35 mph and low humidity combining with already dry conditions to create a critical fire danger.

To the north, the weather service in Amarillo already issued a Red Flag warning for the Texas and eastern Oklahoma panhandles for this afternoon. According to an NWS news release, the combination of gusty southwest winds; the area’s low relative humidity, which is about 10 percent; and the record level of dry fuels for starting a grassfire will provide critical fire conditions.

In the panhandles, grass and scrubs start wildfires, and those fuels are near a record high — the 90th percentile — according to the NWS.

The highest threat areas today are likely to extend across the central and southwest Texas Panhandle, according to the NWS.

In the Panhandle, winds are only expected to reach 20 mph to 30 mph, with gusts to 40 mph, instead of the 50 mph, “which seems to be a magic number that leads to significant uptick in fire starts,” Mike Gittinger of the NWS said in a news release.

But even with the lower wind speeds, the area’s lack of precipitation continues to be a problem. As of Monday, Lubbock was on its 82nd consecutive day without measurable rainfall - the second longest stretch behind the 98-day record from October 2005 to February 2006, according to the weather service. The last measurable rain in Lubbock was Nov. 8, when 0.03 of an inch was recorded at Lubbock Preston Smith International Airport.

With these conditions, “It’s not going to take much to spark a fire,’’ said Dr. Stephen Bieda, science and operations officer at the National Weather Service Amarillo office.

This year’s La Nina drought has set the region on a course to set a new record for the driest winters, breaking the record set in 1902.

And there doesn’t appear to be any relief in sight. “If I look in a crystal ball,” Bieda said, he doesn’t see any precipitation for the next 14 days in the region, and that the area will be below normal through April.

Bieda said the NWS, as always, is asking people today to obey the burn bans, avoid doing anything outside with open flames and dispose of cigarette butts properly. Another tip is for drivers to not pull off the road into high grass because a car’s hot catalytic converter can spark a fire.

If conditions do become dire today, the Texas A&M Forest Service could be called upon to help.

Truitt said there are several aircraft stationed in the region to help fight fires, including an air tanker stationed at Abilene that can drop 3,000 gallons of fire retardant at a time.

Based in Amarillo, there are also two single-engine air tankers that could be used to drop flame retardant on a fire, and one aircraft that flies higher than the air tankers above a fire.

The pilots can coordinate fire-fighting strategies, looking for natural breaks and chart the course of a fire, and relay information to the firefighters on the ground.

At least one of those planes was used to fight a grass fire Monday afternoon in Moore County near the Hutchinson County line. See amarillo.com for video of the plane in action.

The fire burned about 130 acres and was mostly contained Monday afternoon, according to the City of Borger and Hutchinson County Office of Emergency Management.

No structures were threatened by the fire.

Fire safety tips for ranchers

The Texas A&M Forest Service is working with the local fire service and residents through the Ready, Set, Go Program to protect lives, property and livelihoods from wildfire.

Ready: Before a wildfire, create defensible space, livestock evacuation plans and routes

Set: If a wildfire ignites, load livestock into trailers or open gates for escape

Go: Evacuate early, cooperate with officials and monitor media for updates

For more information, visit texasforestservice.tamu.edu

Source: Texas A&M Forest Service

 

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