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Oklahoma On Fire

Wildfires Burning in Oklahoma Illustrate the Increased Threat of Current Weather and Drought Conditions

Tom Jeffery    |    Natural Hazard Risk

The wildfires burning in Oklahoma last week have kicked the 2014 season into high gear right out of the gate and, as many of us feared, are an example of the extreme type of fire risk posed to homes in many parts of the country when hot and dry conditions combine with high winds. Much of the western and central parts of the U.S. have been experiencing various levels of drought severity over the past few years, and an extremely dry landscape often sets the stage for destructive wildfire events. That’s precisely the case in Oklahoma right now, as well as a number of other states as we head into the summer months. More than 100 firefighters from a three-state region worked to contain and extinguish two massive wildfires in the northwest part of the state in Woodward County. The fires burned 28,000 acres and destroyed one home while forcing the evacuation of 25 residences. Near Guthrie, Okla. (north of Oklahoma City), the combination of dry red cedar woodlots and grasslands along with high temperatures and winds topping 30 miles per hour resulted in more than 3,200 acres burned and 42 structures destroyed, including at least 10 homes. Given the extreme conditions, a burn ban is in place for approximately half of the state, and last Monday, Oklahoma’s Governor declared a state of emergency for all 77 Oklahoma counties due to the prime conditions for wildfire activity across the state.

While western states such as California and Colorado get much of the attention for wildfire activity, many of the other western states are also exposed to wildfire risk that only increases during hot, dry and windy weather (Figure 1). It is important to note that a wildfire does not require large conifer forests to generate enough heat to destroy a home. With the right conditions, the small woodlots and grasslands of Oklahoma can feed a fire, and high winds can push it into residential areas where it will destroy homes and buildings. And it isn’t always the number of fires that occur (9,907 in California in 2013 compared to 610 in Oklahoma), but rather the location in which they occur. Even small fires can do a tremendous amount of property damage if they occur in or near populated areas. With the flare-ups of fires in multiple Okla. Counties this week, it is important to realize that until the drought and weather conditions change, the risk of wildfire activity in this area will remain elevated.

According to the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC), the states that could have significantly large fire activity during the month of May include most of California, southern Arizona, southwestern New Mexico, and southern Alaska. By June, the areas of concern will expand into northern California, Nevada and most of Oregon.

It is difficult to make long-term predictions of wildfire activity without getting burned, but by all accounts, the 2014 wildfire season is likely to intensify due to the weather and drought conditions that currently persist across much of the western U.S. Even states that do not regularly generate wildfire headlines have wildfire risk we need to recognize. These Oklahoma wildfires are an indicator that the 2014 wildfire season is upon us.

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