A significant wildfire outbreak is likely Tuesday across the southern High Plains, according to the Storm Prediction Center, owing to very strong winds, warm temperatures and dry conditions.
Nearly 10 million people are under red flag warnings in parts of half a dozen states, discouraging outdoor burning and warning of rapidly spreading fires.
The highest threat level – extremely critical – for fire weather has been issued for the northern Texas Panhandle, the Oklahoma Panhandle and southwestern Kansas, including Amarillo, Texas, and Dodge City and Liberal in Kansas.
By Tuesday afternoon, “sustained winds of 35 to 40 mph with gusts 65 to 70 mph are expected from the Texas Panhandle into central Kansas,” the prediction center said. High wind warnings are in place for this area and southwestward to New Mexico and western Texas.
“Extreme to catastrophic grass fire danger will impact Kansas southwest through West Texas today,” warned the National Weather Service in Wichita, Kansas, adding that rapidly spreading grass fires will be impossible to control. Prescribed burns from recent days reigniting is also of concern.
Texas has been beleaguered by wildfires in recent weeks. This month, 726 wildfires – 121 in the prior week – burned through 164,257 acres across the state, the forest service said Monday in a news release.
Critical fire weather conditions Tuesday – Level 2 of 3 – surround the extremely critical fire threat area and stretch from western Texas to central Kansas, including Lubbock and Midland in Texas; Salina, Kansas; and Roswell, New Mexico. This area will experience gusty winds with dry and warm conditions, elevating the fire concern in the area.
Conditions could compare to Santa Ana winds
A Southern Plains wildfire outbreak “can be compared to the high impact Santa Ana wildfire events that occur in southern California,” the Texas A&M Forest Service explained.
A wildfire outbreak happens when two significant wildfires and at least eight others burn more than 10,000 acres in a single weather event, said Todd Lindley, science and operations officer for the National Weather Service in Norman, Oklahoma, and a Southern Plains Wildfire Outbreak Group member.
“Dangerous fire behavior (is) likely to occur on multiple wildfires, and today looks similar to wildfire outbreaks in Kansas on December 15, 2021, and in the Big Country of Texas just two weeks ago,” he said Tuesday.
The high winds are due to the storm system that brought rain Monday to California and will bring severe storms and tornadoes this week to the South.
“Due to the high winds, blowing dust will be likely and reduce visibility,” said the National Weather Service in Amarillo.
A cold front will pass through the area Tuesday, shifting winds from southwest to northwest and leading to “a significant impact on any ongoing fires,” the prediction center said.
“Great Plains wildfires pushed by the wind generally burn in a straight line downwind,” explained CNN meteorologist Chad Myers. “If the wind shifts, you will have miles and miles of wildland fires burning in a different direction. Think of a line burning and then expanding to a square.”
CNN’s Robert Shackelford contributed to this report.