It’s been a rough start to wildfire season on the Southern Plains. Oklahoma’s third megafire in three years is currently raging across the state, fueled by a spate of hot, dry weather. Neighboring states have been on high alert as hot, dry conditions and strong winds lock in serious fire danger across the region.
On Tuesday, the National Weather Service warned that western Oklahoma was experiencing its most ideal fire-spreading conditions in a decade, according to the Associated Press. Temperatures have been in the mid-90s, humidity levels have been desert-like, and winds have been gusting at up to 40 mph.
Those conditions are having consequences. As of this morning the Rhea Fire, which began on April 12, had ballooned to over 260,000 acres in western Oklahoma’s Dewey County, well past the 100,000-acre cutoff used to demarcate megafires. As of this morning, it was only three percent contained, according to the Oklahoma Forestry Services. Oklahoma 4 News reports that 50 homes have been consumed by the flames so far.
At least one other large fire is burning in the state. Just 20 miles away in Woodward County, the 34 Complex Fire hovered around 70,000 acres in size this morning, and was just under 50 percent contained.
A Red Flag Fire warning remains in effect across western Oklahoma until Tuesday evening, with both of these major fires expected to continue growing.
“While there hasn’t been any loss of life reported, the potential was very high yesterday,” Oklahoma Forestry Services wrote in its latest update. “A high threat to the lives of firefighters and the public will continue in western Oklahoma until substantial rainfall is received and Spring green up occurs.”
The tinderbox conditions aren’t unique to Oklahoma. Yesterday, as noted by the Washington Post’s Capital Weather Gang noted yesterday, a large swath of the central and southwestern U.S. faced severe fire danger thanks to warm weather, strong winds, and a dearth of rainfall. Conditions have improved a bit today, but fire danger is still widespread. As a U.S. Drought Monitor map issued April 12 shows, everywhere from the Four Corners region to central Oklahoma and Kansas is in the grips of extreme to exceptional drought, the worst two categories possible.
The bigger picture context is that for much of the West, fire season is becoming worse due to a combination of burgeoning development at the wildlands-urban interface, the legacy of wildfire suppression policies that allowed too much fuel to build up on landscapes, and climate change, which has roughly doubled the area affected by wildfire season in western forests.
In Oklahoma, there’s another factor at play too. As meteorologist Bob Henson explained over at Weather Underground yesterday, the expansion of eastern red cedar across the Southern Plains is adding boatloads of new fuel to landscapes we typically associate with rolling fields of grass.
“The same volatile oils that give cedar its appealing scent—think of cedar air freshener, or cedar plank salmon—can make the tree a virtual firebomb when it’s dried out,” Henson wrote.