Unseasonably warm weather and low precipitation patterns are becoming the winter Kansas norm, and weather patterns that closely resemble those of last year, if not more exaggerated, position the region for weather conducive to active fire behavior if nothing changes.
There are currently 10 counties in far southwest and south-central Kansas partially or fully showing signs of extreme drought conditions, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, which was updated on Thursday. The southernmost portion of Finney County is showing signs of severe drought conditions, while the northern half is showing signs of moderate drought conditions.
January’s conditions measured from Garden City and Dodge City show signs of a warmer, drier winter than last year. January 2017 in Garden City had an average high temperature of 43 degrees with total precipitation of 1.28 inches, according to the National Weather Service in Dodge City. In January 2018, the average high temperature was 50 degrees with trace amounts of total precipitation, or .01 inches. Average wind speeds in January 2017 were 11 mph, and average wind speeds this year are 11.6 mph.
And with a wet spring and summer, if conditions continue to develop as they did in 2017, by March Kansas could once again be a tinderbox capable of producing fires.
“We’re hurting for moisture, as is pretty obvious across the whole region really,” said Mike Umscheid, a meteorologist for the Dodge City National Weather Service. He noted that the worst conditions are affecting far southwest Kansas into the Texas panhandle, where Amarillo has been mired in a three-month streak of no measurable precipitation.
So far, Dodge City has received only one-tenth of an inch of moisture dating back to late 2017.
The only difference thus far in the regional weather patterns of 2018 and 2017 is that in 2017, there was an ice storm in mid-January that delivered some precipitation, but may have actually contributed to the active fire behavior in March.
Umscheid said the ice storm could have played a small or big part in the March 2017 fires. Ice storms leave power lines weighed down and cause poles to snap. He noted that March 6, when the record-breaking fires began, was only about a month and a half after the ice storm.
“That doesn’t give the electrical companies a whole lot of time to repair a lot of the damages, so a lot of temporary poles were up and there were still a lot of other weakened poles,” he said. “That day was very windy, and we do know for sure that on that day a lot of power poles did actually go down in some parts of southwest Kansas. To say the wildfires were caused by that, we don’t know that, but that could have played a role in why that was the worst fire day we’ve ever had in Kansas history.”
A series of fires in Kansas, now mostly known as the Starbuck fire, broke out on March 6 and continued into the days that followed, devouring 700,000 acres across the state with many more acres lost in Texas and Oklahoma. The fires also claimed many thousands of livestock animals, most of which were cattle.
The record-breaking fire was hardly unprecedented. The previous record-holder occurred just the year before in 2016 and became known as the Anderson Creek Fire. That fire started March 22 and ate up approximately 400,000 acres of land in Kansas and Oklahoma.
More problematic than the fires themselves is the lasting aftermath, which most adversely affects farmers. The moonscape left behind by the fires was a desert of loose dirt that blows in the wind and generates static electricity through a complex exchange of dust particles, damaging wheat yields.
After the fires last year, Mary Knapp, Kansas’ assistant state climatologist with K-State’s Department of Agronomy, explained that extensive vegetative growth during previous summers, followed by a dry winter and combined with low humidity and high winds, resulted in “active fire behavior.”
Contributing to that recipe for disaster, Knapp explained, is that Kansas is located in what tends to be a thermal boundary for air masses, meaning a pressure system is often moving through the area.
“In this particular case, we were getting downsloping winds off the Rockies,” Knapp said of the conditions in March 2017. She added that those winds accounted for the severe gusts, as well as atmospheric compression that both raised the temperature and dried out the air “very quickly.”
Knapp summed up the calamity’s three main ingredients thusly: “low humidity, warm temperatures and strong winds.”
And so it is with 2018 — so far.
“We’re really pretty much locked into a pattern where we have a ridge of high pressure in the western part of the country and a trough in the eastern part of the country,” Umscheid said.
He explained that a jet stream weather pattern is moving from northwest to southeast, meaning downsloping winds are being warmed by compression as they move down and through the Rocky Mountains.
“For us to get a decent storm with a high quantity of moisture, we need to have a southwest low,” Umscheid said. “The way that the overall hemispheric weather pattern has been this whole winter does not favor southwest low developments.”
Until the pattern breaks, he said, southwest Kansas is positioned to get periodic dry cold fronts with gusty winds and “no moisture.”
Still, Umscheid noted that the hemispheric pattern still has the potential to shift “quite dramatically” over the course of a week.
“We could go right back into a wet pattern,” he said. “When we get the seasonal transition here in late February into March, that can disturb the whole planetary scale regime, and we can go right back into a wet pattern, which is what has happened the last two years.”
With conditions in 2018 thus far set to surpass 2017 in flammability, a wet pattern is what southwest Kansas needs.
“We’re definitely concerned because we had a pretty wet season out here, so we’ve got all this fuel, all the tall grass fuel is out there that are crisp and ready to go if we get the right conditions,” Umscheid said. “We’re watching the models out in the future to see if we see any signals of this large-scale weather regime to change to a more favorable precipitation pattern, but right now we’re not really seeing that yet unfortunately.”
Contact Mark Minton at email@example.com.