Extremely dry ground and vegetation, very low humidity and strong winds are fueling numerous fires in eastern New Mexico, western and northern Texas and Oklahoma.
More than 360,000 acres of land have been burned nationally by ongoing fires this week, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. More than 900,000 acres have been burned so far this year, which is roughly one-third more than the 10-year average to date.
Fire weather conditions will be "extremely critical" in parts of eastern New Mexico and the Texas panhandle today and Friday, according to the National Weather Service. Relative humidity levels will be dip to between 10 and 15 percent today, with wind gusts of close to 60 mph, resulting in a short-term intensification of what's been a long-term problem.
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Not only has little or no precipitation fallen so far this month -- at a time when the strengthening sun has increased the rates of evaporation and evapotranspiration (the loss of moisture to the air from vegetation) -- but precipitation amounts since the fall have been far below normal. Southern New Mexico, as well as western and southern Texas, has had less than 25 percent of average precipitation since October.
This translates to less than 2 inches of total rainfall in nearly half a year for many locations. To put that in perspective, a single heavy thunderstorm sometimes produces that much rain in an hour.
The result is long-term drought conditions that are extreme to exceptional, the worst category, and the intense drought extends eastward through the remainder of Texas into large portions of Arkansas and Louisiana.
One of the long-term weather factors that has contributed to the lack of storminess is the La Nina, which is a cooling of sea-surface temperatures in the equatorial Pacific. One of the more common effects of a La Nina across the United States during the winter through spring is a less-active-than-normal southern storm track, often resulting in dry conditions across much of the southern U.S.
No immediate relief is in sight.
The Climate Prediction Center, which produces the government's long-range forecasts, predicts higher-than-average chances of below-normal precipitation in the Southwest through June. In addition, temperatures are projected to be higher than normal, which would increase the amount of moisture pulled out of the ground and vegetation.
The possibility of worsening drought conditions across the southern tier of the county was highlighted in seasonal forecasts in the fall because of the expected impact of La Nina; however, drought conditions were not as widespread as they could have been. Winter storms tracked far enough to the south along the West Coast to bring an abundance of rain and mountain snow to California, including the southern part of the state.
Gov. Jerry Brown officially declared the California drought to be over a couple of weeks ago, two years after former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's drought designation.