Largest Winter Wildfire in Kansas History Probably Linked to Climate Change

Over the past few days, a 1.5 million acre (2,350 square mile) swath of the Central U.S. has burned. The wildfires, stoked by warm winds, prodigious undergrowth, and a nascent mid-western drought exploded across Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas. Six people have perished, numerous structures have been destroyed, and thousands of people have been forced to evacuate. According to initial reports, the losses in the form of cropland burned and livestock consumed by the flames are expected to be significant.

(Large wildfires and massive burn scars are clearly visible in this March 7 NASA satellite shot of North Texas, the Oklahoma Pan-Handle and Southern Kansas. For reference, bottom edge of frame is approximately 120 miles. Image source: LANCE MODIS.)

For Kansas, a single blaze covering 1,000 square miles was likely the largest fire ever to strike the state. Meanwhile, similar enormous fires ripped through nearby Oklahoma and North Texas (see satellite image above). Though more favorable weather conditions for firefighting are on the way, concerns remain that the fires could continue to grow throughout the weekend.

It is not an unheard of event for wildfires to strike the plains states during winter. However, the rising frequency and intensity of large fires during recent years has been a cause for growing concern among climate researchers. And though humans and lightning strikes often provide the ignition sources for the wildfires that do occur, it is the underlying heat and drought conditions which can cause a wildfire to explode into an out of control monstrosity when such an ignition inevitably occurs. To this point, it’s worth noting that a similar large wildfire outbreak occurred during the winter of 2010-2011 — a time when near record warmth combined with drought to scorch 4,000 square miles in Texas and Arizona. And we should also note that global warming will tend to bring on these wildfire favorable conditions with increasing frequency and intensity.

(Near record warmth and below average precipitation over the past month set the stage for extreme wildfire risks this week. Increasingly, such anomalously warm temperatures and rapid onset drought conditions are driven by human-caused climate change. Image source: NOAA.)

This year, similar climate change related conditions set the stage for this past week’s dangerous outbreak. And though some researchers consider the fire regime in this region of the U.S. during this time of year to be cyclical in nature (possibly driven at least in part by the ENSO cycle), the added heat and increasing risk of intensifying drought periods due to climate change plays a role in the worsening fire regime as well.

According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, wildfire season in the Western U.S. has already grown from 5 months per year to 7+ months per year due to rising temperatures. This added heat and related expansion of the wildfire season has helped to increase the average number of large fires burning during any given year in this region from approximately 140 per year during the 1980s to 250 per year from the period of 2000 to 2012.

(Union of Concerned Scientists graphic shows stark wildfire trend for the Western U.S. A trend that is being repeated in many regions across the country due to climate change’s rising temperatures and increasingly intense precipitation extremes. See full infographic here: Union of Concerned Scientists.)

For the Central U.S. the story is much the same as researchers have warned that the frequency and intensity of wildfires likely would continue to increase in the coming years, given the confluence of climate change related factors such as higher temperatures and lower rainfall amounts. In Phys.org today, University of Illinois atmospheric sciences professor Don Wuebbles noted that increasingly intense wildfires are:

“…Probably… the new normal. Thirty years from now, we may look upon this as being a much better period than what we may be facing then.”

Links:

LANCE MODIS

NOAA

Union of Concerned Scientists

A Look at Questions About Current Wildfires

At Least 6 People Have Died in Plains Wildfires

Hat tip to Colorado Bob

Hot Winds Fan Massive, Unprecedented March Wildfire Burning 40 Mile Swath Through Kansas and Oklahoma

It’s likely that we’ve never seen a March wildfire like the beast that just ripped through Kansas and Oklahoma over the past day. But in a world that’s now exploring a new peak temperature range near or above 1.5 C warmer than pre-industrial averages, a level of heat not seen in the past 110,000 years, we’d be out of our minds to expect the weather and climate conditions to behave in any kind of manner that could be considered normal.

We’re Probably Looking at the Worst Wildfire on Record for Kansas and Oklahoma

Kansas Oklahoma Wildfire March 2016

(Massive, unprecedented, wildfire burns along a 40 mile swath across Kansas and Oklahoma on Wednesday. Image source: NASA/MODIS.)

And abnormal absolutely describes what happened in Oklahoma and Kansas yesterday and today.

The first sign of trouble was a warning of severe fire risk by weather officials for a multi-state region of the Central US on Wednesday. Extremely dry southwest winds gusting to 60 miles per hour coupled with anomalous temperature readings in the 80s (F) — or about 25 degrees (F) above average for this time of year — spiked fire hazards across a broad swath stretching from New Mexico and Western Texas on into Oklahoma and Kansas. The abnormal heat and dry winds combined to spark one of the worst grass fires on record.

The fire began in Northern Oklahoma at around 5:45 PM and almost immediately leapt northward — following the wind along a 1-2 mile wide swath through the northern portions of the state before roaring across the border into Kansas. It swelled to massive size — spewing out a plume of debris so large that doppler weather radar stations began picking it up. The large cloud, filled with tinders, dropped burning fragments over towns as far as 85 miles away from the blaze. People as far away as Arkansas reported smelling smoke.

During the height of the fire, the City of Medicine Lodge found itself facing an encroaching wall of flame on three sides. The nearby Route 160 had been cut off by the fire and as many as 2,000 structures, including the local hospital, were in danger of being consumed by the flames. Two homes burned, two bridges were destroyed and thousands were urged to evacuate as government officials declared a state of emergency. The American Red Cross scrambled to set up disaster shelters for evacuees.

Anderson Creek Wildfire Enormous Footprint

(Anderson Creek wildfire’s enormous footprint is likely to grow larger over the coming day before the massive fire is finally contained. For reference, 212,000 acres is about 300 square miles. Note that by early afternoon the size of the blaze had jumped to 400,000 acres or more than 600 square miles. Image source: KOCO.)

As of this morning, 800-1000 structures in Medicine Lodge remained under threat. But the fire appeared to have mostly swept around the city. An overnight shift in the wind had caused the blaze to balloon eastward. And, according to the most recent reports, more than 400,000 acres, or about 600 square miles, had burned along a 40 mile swath stretching through Kansas and Oklahoma by early afternoon Thursday.

Conditions in Context

For a single fire to burn so much land in just a single day is absolutely unprecedented for this region. By comparison, the fire season of 2014 was considered to be the worst on record for Kansas — but it took nearly 4,000 fires to burn 110,000 acres during March of that year and here we have a single fire that has now exceeded that record total.

Under the conditions of human-forced climate change, wildfire risk is amplified due to a number of factors. First, overall increased temperatures result in periods of greater and greater fire risk. In addition, the added heat increases rates of moisture loss, facilitating drought, flash drought, and brief periods of intense dryness. Plants, which have adapted over tens of thousands of years to manage an expected range of moisture levels, are unable to compensate for the increased heat and dryness and become more vulnerable to burning.

Hot Winds Blow over Oklahoma and Kansas

(Anomalous heat and dry wind events, like the unseasonable warmth over Oklahoma and Kansas that pushed March temperatures into the mid 80s [F] over Oklahoma and Kansas yesterday become more prevalent as human greenhouse gas emissions force the world to warm. These conditions are a trigger for increasingly severe wildfire events. Earth Nullschool GFS capture at 2100 UTC on March 23, 2016.)

Furthermore, increased prevalence of drought and thawing lands — such a permafrost thaw — provide an increasing volume of fuels to feed the fires that do ignite. Fires under such conditions tend to burn hotter — generating far more destructive and potentially rapidly expanding blazes than the tamer variety of fires both human beings and the lands they inhabit are used to. This is a story that could well be told the world over — from the Arctic to the tropics, to Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and the tip of South America.

Pretty much everywhere, increased global heat — now peaking in the range of 1.5 C above preindustrial temperatures — worsens wildfire risk. And it’s just one of the many, many negative impacts of rising global temperatures. But for Kansas and Oklahoma the massive plume of smoke painting the sky in shades of brown, gray and black may as well have spelled out the words — climate change.

UPDATE 2:40 PM Friday — Renewed Fire Hazard

By Friday afternoon, official tallies for total acres burned had remained at near 400,000 acres in Kansas and Oklahoma and included another 50,000 acres in Texas — or about 700 square miles over the three states. New damage estimates included the loss of hundreds and perhaps thousands of cattle along with many hundreds of miles of fence line.

Reports from the Weather Channel, from GFS model summaries, and from local observations indicated strong southerly winds re-emerging over the region and gusting up to 40 mph. Fire officials have indicated that the new strong winds and rising temperatures into the upper seventies (F) coupled with another slot of dry air could re-ignite smoldering flames in the large fire zone. As such, risks for continued burning and expansion of existing fires was on the rise by mid Friday afternoon.

Links:

Wildfire in South-Central Kansas

Wildfire Burns Through Barber County

Massive Wildfire Burns over 200,000 Acres

Real Earth Weather Analysis

NASA/MODIS

Broken Records, Strained Resources

Earth Nullschool

Hat tip to DT Lange

Hat tip to Kevin Jones

 

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