Late winter wildfires are churning through the grasslands of the Central Plains, prompting mass evacuations in Oklahoma and threatening hundreds of homes in the Texas panhandle.
Red-flag warnings were issued Tuesday for Kansas, Oklahoma, Iowa, Colorado, Missouri and Nebraska. The National Weather Service issues these warnings when conditions such as temperature, wind and humidity are ideal for new fires to start and rapidly spread.
The threat of wildfire in the Central Plains is at its highest from February to April, according to an analysis by Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting.
Changing climate conditions – warming temperatures, extended drought and severe weather patterns – will cause increases in wildfire frequency, severity and size, Reveal found. And the fire danger will spread to areas outside the West, where large, destructive wildfires are most common.
About 38 percent of Oklahoma’s population lives in areas known as the wildland-urban interface, where homes are at an increased risk of burning in a wildfire because of their proximity to forests and grasslands. Numerous buildings have been lost in fires there, but officials have not finalized damage estimates. Between 200,000 and 300,000 acres have burned so far this season.
Firefighters in Texas are battling three large blazes in the panhandle region. The largest, the Perryton Fire, has scorched more than 315,000 acres and is 50 percent contained.
Firefighters are stretched thin in Kansas, which has already seen several buildings lost to flames. Evacuations have been ordered in the Reno County Complex, where two large fires are being managed as a single incident.
Crews working to contain a blaze near Silver Lake, Kansas, had to evacuate when a tornado moved into the area, according to WIBW-TV.
Five civilians have died in fires in Texas and Kansas, according to a report from Wildfire Today.
These events mark the beginning of what fire experts predict will be a prolonged fire season throughout the Central Plains as drought continues to plague the area. A build-up of fine fuels – dried grasses and brush – already is causing explosive fire growth in Oklahoma.