March of this year was the last month we exceeded our average monthly rainfall at Lubbock Preston International Airport. And while we have seen rain since then, it just hasn’t been enough to keep us out of a drought. According to the National Weather Service, these drought conditions are only expected to get worse.
Senior Forecaster Ron McQueen explains, “right, so the drought forecast over the next period of months is forecast to get worse. And you are correct, we recently did just eliminate the exceptional drought for this area. But we still have a very large area with D3, thats extreme drought if you’re on the Caprock. And it is expected to get worse. The reason for that is because we have developing La Nina conditions out in the tropical Eastern Pacific Ocean [..] That tends to lead to increasing high pressure over the Southern US and drier conditions with less storminess that would move into our area. Especially during the Fall, Winter and Spring.”
A lot like out West, prolonged drought can easily lead to increased fire danger. And while we don’t have the lush forests of the Pacific Northwest here on the South Plains for fuel, what we do have can be just as combustible.
“Wildfires are connected very strongly to drought conditions. And of course the availability of fuels and other more immediate weather factors like wind and humidity […] Our fire potential on the Texas South Plains and the Southern Plains prairie areas is every bit as volatile and dangerous as currently being experienced out West. Now it’s true that the fuel load in the Western US, especially up in the Pacific Northwest, those are huge trees that are very old, very large and have massive amounts of fuel associated with them. Here on the South Plains, our fuels tend to burn very rapidly. But also the spread rate when the wind is blowing strong can be incredible. So we can burn off incredible large areas of the prairie in short periods of time.”
I also asked Ron whether a wildfire here on the South Plains would result in the incredible amounts of smoke pollution currently being experienced on the West Coast.
“So here on the South Plains, we tend to get more reliable air flow. We don’t have as much valley areas to trap the smoke as they have out West. So we tend to mostly mix the smoke out. That’s not to say we haven’t had bad air quality from smoke in the past. During the Summers of 2011 and 2012 we had a number of periods where the smoke pollutants became an issue for various areas here in the South Plains.”