ENVIRONMENT

Hurricane-force winds and dry conditions combine to fuel critical fire threat in Central US

Apr 7, 2024, 12:14 PM

A still from a video of wildfires with heavy smoke moving through Woodward County, Oklahoma, amidst...

A still from a video of wildfires with heavy smoke moving through Woodward County, Oklahoma, amidst severe weather there. (KOCO)

(KOCO)

(CNN)Intense winds across the Central United States this weekend are fueling critical fire danger, leaving roads closed and thousands without power in some areas.

Low relative humidity is combining with high winds to create an extreme fire weather threat across the western half of the Southern and Central Plains – the highest risk level for fire weather. Across much of the Plains, over 10 million people were under red flag warnings, spanning nearly border to border.

Intense winds across the Central United States are fueling critical fire danger. (CNN Weather)

The widespread fire risk will persist across parts of the Central and Southern Plains through Sunday, driven by gusty, dry air and an ongoing drought. Any fires that start will be difficult to contain in the strong winds, the National Weather Service warned.

Firefighters in Oklahoma were battling several wildfires across six counties amid winds as strong as 60 mph on Saturday. Aircraft were brought in to slow the fires down, which were still burning Saturday night, CNN affiliate KOCO reported.

One wildfire temporarily triggered evacuation orders and two firefighters were taken to a hospital with burn injuries while battling the flames, Woodward County Emergency Manager Matt Lehenbauer told KOCO.

“Very dry conditions combined with these winds is leading to an environment favorable for wildfire growth, especially for western portions of the Southern Plains,” the weather service said.

High wind warnings are in effect from Colorado east of the Rockies into central Nebraska and Kansas through Sunday evening, with gusts of up to 95 mph expected, according to the weather service office in Denver.

The power was out for more than 300,000 customers in Colorado Sunday morning, according to Poweroutage.us.

Xcel Energy Colorado previously said it would be shutting off power to a limited set of customers in some areas due to “the exceptionally high winds and the high risk of wind-driven wildfires.”

It’s unclear how many of the current outages were planned and how many have resulted from the wind. Wind gusts over 90 mph were reported Saturday across portions of the state.

The Colorado Department of Transportation has closed some roads due to the high winds.

Through Sunday, the National Weather Service forecasts 30-45 mph winds with higher gusts from eastern New Mexico to eastern Nebraska, where high-wind warnings are in effect. Stronger, hurricane-force wind gusts are forecast to reach 100 mph in the foothills near Denver.

The highest wind gusts were expected Sunday morning, the weather service said.

High wind warnings remained in effect in parts of Kansas, New Mexico, Wyoming, Nebraska, Colorado and Texas through Sunday.

The weather service recommended people remain indoors, warning that strong winds could cause damage to property and trees, power outages and travel difficulties.

“Remain in the lower levels of your home during the windstorm, and avoid windows,” the weather service advised. “Watch for falling debris and tree limbs. Use caution if you must drive.”

States prepare for fire risk

The fire threat prompted emergency responses in Kansas, Texas and Oklahoma, according to releases from the states’ emergency management operations.

Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly on Friday issued a verbal state of disaster proclamation, allowing resources to be used to provide state assistance, a release from the Kansas Division of Emergency Management said. Forecasts for the state show extreme fire weather for southwest and south-central Kansas with low relative humidity and wind gusts up to 55-60 mph, the release said.

“I urge all Kansans to refrain from burning during this period of extreme fire danger,” Kelly said. “By being vigilant, taking extra precautions, and reporting any fires to your local fire department, the risk of fires getting out of control can be minimized.”

In Texas, state emergency response resources were activated on Friday, a release from the Texas Division of Emergency Management (TDEM) said.

“With high fire danger expected, state emergency response resources have been activated to assist local wildfire response efforts, ensuring our communities are prepared to meet this weekend’s critical wildfire threat,” Texas Emergency Management Chief Nim Kidd said in the release. “TDEM and our Texas Emergency Management Council partners stand ready to support local officials with any requests for state emergency response assistance.”

In nearby Oklahoma, the State Emergency Operations Center was activated and multiple agencies from across the state were working to put out the wildfires, officials said.

Oklahoma has requested fire management assistance from FEMA to aid the wildfire response, Gov. Kevin Stitt announced. “God Bless our first responders and all Oklahomans in harm’s way,” Stitt said in a post on X.

CNN’s Chris Boyette, Sara Tonks, Paradise Afshar, Danielle Sills and Raja Razek contributed to this report.

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Hurricane-force winds and dry conditions combine to fuel critical fire threat in Central US