Wildfires have ripped across the southern and central US this week, killing six people and scorching over 1 million acres.
Kansas experienced its largest wildfire in state history this week, and it continues to rage there, as well as across the Colorado border. A separate fire has eclipsed 7,500 acres in Florida’s Picayune Strand State Forest, and on Thursday morning only about 50% of it was contained.
Drought conditions and high winds are exacerbating the wildfires, which are expected to die down Thursday and Friday as firefighters get them under control. But the National Weather Service cautions that conditions are still ripe for new fires to start across the plains, and any spark could start a new blaze.
Since Monday, thousands of people have had to evacuate and numerous homes have been destroyed by the fires that have swept through Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas.
Three of the deaths occurred as ranchers tried to get livestock out of harm’s way, according to Reuters. Jolyn Easterwood, a 24-year-old rancher in Oklahoma, said the fires nearly destroyed her family’s home as she was helping evacuate livestock.
“This is people’s life that’s on fire,” she told Reuters. “It’s not just land, it’s people’s life.”
Ranchers in Colorado lost hundreds of cattle to the fires, the Aurora Sentinel reported, prompting the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association to petition the state for emergency assistance.
“Special thank you to all of the farmers and ranchers in the area for being great neighbours and helping where needed,” the group posted on Facebook Tuesday. “This is the only constant from natural disaster to the next. The good will of people.”
Since Saturday, grassfires have burned over 1,000 square miles in 23 Kansas counties. Three fires were still burning over 480,000 acres in Texas on Thursday, with 75% to 100% containment.
And in Oklahoma, fires were at little to no containment on Thursday morning. Over 833,000 acres have burned, causing significant property damage.
“Conditions are very dangerous today and we are urging everyone to use extreme caution and avoid any activity that can cause a spark,” Oklahoma Forestry Director George Geissler said in a statement. “The Northwest Oklahoma Complex Fire, as well as other fires around the state, are pushing resources to their limits and the last thing we need is to have additional fires.”
The amount of vegetation fuelling the fires, the drought, and high winds means “everything has come together to overlap to create a pretty volatile situation,” Liz Leitman, a Storm Prediction Center meteorologist, told the AP on Wednesday. The damage done will easily cost millions of dollars.
“Highest fire risks today move from Oklahoma/Texas today to the Atlantic State’s piedmont and coastal plain areas,” the Southern Area Coordination Center, the federal agency managing information about the fires, said in its update on Thursday morning. “Risks, most likely, will be highest today for Virginia.”
A study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences last month found that humans cause 84% of the wildfires in the United States. No specific causes have been identified from these fires, though a few were started by lightning strikes from the thunderstorms that ravaged the same areas last week.
The drought conditions across the southern and central US are exacerbating the fire outlook for the month. If the area doesn’t get a substantial amount of rain soon, it could continue to be at risk for forest fires throughout the spring:
A wildfire swept through the Gardiner Angus Ranch, where my niece is doing an internship last night. She barely got out, with six horses. pic.twitter.com/rmA15apDC9
— A.T. Graham (@GNSCATTLECO) March 7, 2017
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