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.
Probably Looking at the Worst Wildfire on Record for Kansas and
unprecedented, wildfire burns along a 40 mile swath across Kansas and
Oklahoma on Wednesday. Image source: NASA/MODIS.)
abnormal absolutely describes what happened in Oklahoma and Kansas
yesterday and today.
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.
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
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.
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.)
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
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 Marchof
that year and here we have a single fire that has now exceeded that
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.
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.)
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.
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.
2:40 PM Friday — Renewed Fire Hazard
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
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.