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Forecasters warn of a fire, damage to crops in the high plains

ALBUQUERQUE, N. M. – The amount of moisture received in the United States’ southern high plains since October is ridiculously low, and forecasters warned Friday that the worsening drought has led to critical fire danger, and some winter wheat crops reduced to stubble across different states.

Texas State Climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon said during a national briefing that some areas in the region have received less than one-tenth of an inch of rain in the past five months and that is perhaps the longest period of these areas have been without rain since the track began decades ago.

The lack of rain in combination with above-normal temperatures in parts of New Mexico, Colorado, Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas have abandoned cattle watering tanks dry agricultural land by wind-blown and rangeland contained.

“Of course, you can never predict something of this serious a few months in advance, but we knew it to go to a challenging cold season for the southern plains,” Nielsen-Gammon said.

He showed satellite images of the smoke and the dust plumes to move over the region and warned that the hot and dry weather is expected to continue through the spring. That could mean continued damage to crops, the loss of irrigation supplies and burn more.

“All the precipitation that falls in the next three months is likely to evaporate relatively quickly at the same time that crops and fodder crops are more water as a result of the high temperatures,” he said. “That means that if and when the rains return, the drought recovery … going slower than expected.”

By the dry conditions, the National Weather Service issued fire warnings Friday for most of Oklahoma, the Texas Panhandle, southern Kansas, northeastern New Mexico, southeastern Colorado, and southeastern Missouri.

Oklahoma Forestry Services has already requested and received, firefighters and equipment from Alabama, Kentucky and Louisiana because of the fire threat. Additional firefighters and equipment from Georgia and Mississippi are on the road.

Oklahoma forestry spokeswoman Michelle Finch-Walker early in the morning to mid-afternoon is the time many fires start.

“We call that the witching hour. It is getting warmer, the humidity drops and wind gusts to address,” she said.

For Oklahoma, this is the first time that the exceptional drought the worst category of drought — has made an appearance since May 2015. The different provinces in the northwest and the panhandle have gone 155 days or more with less than a quarter of an inch of rain, marking only a fraction of the average rainfall for this time of the year.

The last map shows strips of red — and- display-extreme to exceptional drought covers the southern high plains and the Four Corners of the region where the borders of New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona and Utah.

In New Mexico, the lack of water and an unusually warm winter have already resulted in a high demand for hay, and some farmers are being forced to trim their herds. The last time this much of the state was struggling with extreme drought July 2014.

Winter wheat crops in Texas are also struggling. The officials say that almost one-third of the crop is rated as poor.

Forest fires in Kansas have already burned thousands of acres and the agricultural officials were prepared to move hay to ranchers who need it the most, or work with the federal government to gain access to additional pasture.

Kansas Gov. Jeff Colyer declared a drought emergency this week, given the ongoing dry conditions and the increasing fire hazard.

That is the average rainfall over the last six months was only two-thirds of the normal rate, and in January and February the provincial average precipitation was even lower, at less than half of normal.

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Associated Press writer Ken Miller, contribution of Oklahoma City.

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