Since October 2010, the statewide average precipitation is more than 2 feet below normal.
Friday, the calendar flipped to February, which isn't a good time to make up for deficits. It's the end of what climatologists and meteorologists officially call winter, and is normally the second-driest month of the year in Oklahoma.
That's bad news for the state's wildfire forecast, experts say, and a significant boost is needed soon.
“A good 6 to 9 inches of rain over the state in February would be good,” said Gary McManus of the Oklahoma Climatological Survey. “That is unlikely since the record for the month is 4.7 inches, but we need really good precipitation in the spring. Should we have a third bad spring rainy season in a row, the drought impacts we see now will pale in comparison, and a full third year of drought will be highly likely.”
While this is of concern to many Oklahomans, it's especially relevant to Mark Goeller, assistant director for the Forestry Services Division of the state Agriculture, Food and Forestry Department.
The Forestry Services Division fire protection area includes 15 counties in eastern Oklahoma, but the department also assists with fires outside its protection area.
Goeller said his greatest concern is that we are heading toward the growing season with the entire state still in severe to exceptional drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.
“We have made it through fall 2012 and most of the winter months with very little fire activity,” Goeller said. “Spring is approaching and the drought will limit our ability to use water-dropping aircraft due to how low most ponds and lakes are at this time.
“When the growing season hits in April and May, the meager moisture that we have received will quickly be gone and the vegetation will quickly cure as summer temperatures hit.”
In recent years
The Forestry Services Division battled 1,745 fires in 2011 that blazed across 132,103 acres, both inside their protection area and on fires for which they provided assistance. Last year, they fought 1,150 fires that burned across 159,417 acres.
One large fire, the Freedom Hills Fire in Creek County, burned 58,500 acres during the first week of August. That fire alone accounted for about one-third of the acres burned by fires that received Forestry Services assistance.
The division has 42 units, each consisting of a brush pumper-type vehicle, a transport truck and a fire suppression dozer and two firefighters, Goeller said.
And although aerial firefighting assistance is usually thought of as the Oklahoma Army National Guard's CH-47 Chinook helicopters and the UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters, Forestry Services can mobilize federal resources such as fixed-wing air tankers and firefighting helicopters.
Last year, firefighters across the state were suddenly faced with conditions nearly identical to the summer of 2011 due to the change in weather during late July and August that was combined with the ongoing drought, Goeller said.
“Extremely dry wild land fuels, high temperatures, high winds and low relative humidity allowed for fire behavior that presented fire control challenges,” Goeller said. “Active crown fires and long-range spotting commonly occurred during the summer of 2012. These two fire behavior characteristics caused major fire control issues on numerous fires across Oklahoma during late July and August.”
An active crown fire is when the fire is moving through the treetops. Those are common during summer drought years, Goeller said.
Long-range spotting occurs when burning embers are lofted into the atmosphere and fall out ahead of the advancing fire and start a new fire.
So far this winter has a little of both of the last two winters mixed into it, McManus said.
Much like last winter, it has been fairly warm for the most part, but is lacking abundant moisture. And like the first two months of the 2010-11 winter, it has been fairly dry.
“I think we can hope we finish like last year's winter with a somewhat warm and wet February rather than the record-setting cold and snow of February 2011,” McManus said.
This January actually had above-normal precipitation, with a statewide average of 1.61 inches. That's the first month in which that has happened since April 2012.
“Given that it is normally the driest month of the year, however, that extra 0.2 inches is hardly a drought-buster,” McManus said. “Combine that with December's drier-than-normal statewide average of 0.9 inches and the first two months of this winter have come up short by about 0.8 inches.
“The hardest-hit area of the state through the winter so far has been north-central Oklahoma. Much of that area has received less than an inch of moisture this winter.”
McManus said the National Weather Service's Climate Prediction Center's U.S. Seasonal Drought Outlook for February through April shows the possibility of drought either persisting or intensifying across the entire state. The outlook for the primary rainy season in Oklahoma, April through June, calls for increased odds of above-normal temperatures and below-normal precipitation.
“The latest models looking towards spring are tipping the odds to the dry and warm side,” McManus said.
“The sea-surface temperature patterns in the Atlantic and Pacific are looking somewhat like what we saw in the 1950s, a period of terrible drought across the Southern Plains.
“Hopefully the similarities end there, but some experts are saying we might be in an extended period of drought susceptibility over the coming years thanks to those sea-surface temperature patterns.”