The U.S. Southwest is keeping a close watch today on the strong winds blowing through the region. The weather is just right for sparking dangerous wildfires.
The nation's Storm Prediction Center (SPC) in Norman, Okla., has issued critical fire weather alerts for many areas in the Southwest due to astrong storm system moving out of the Rockies — where it's creating blizzard conditions — and into the central Plains today (Feb. 28). The storm system has brought very strong and dangerous winds from Arizona to Kansas. The gusty winds are creating extremely dry conditions, which are ripe for sparking and quickly spreading wildfires.
Winds up to 40 mph (64 kph) are forecast for parts of New Mexico and Colorado. Wind gusts up to 65 mph (105 kph) are expected in West Texas. A new image using data from the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's North American Model shows the maximum sustained wind speeds expected through today around the region.
The most critical fire weather is in southern and eastern New Mexico, West Texas, western Oklahoma, western Kansas and southern Colorado, according to the SPC.
In Texas, where the state has been battling a record-breaking drought, the winds are blowing from the southwest, which dries out the fine grasses that can fuel ranging wildfires, said Felecia Bowser, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Lubbock, Texas. Despite the rain yesterday in West Texas, the gusty winds have helped keep the relative humidity below about 15 percent, Bowser said, but the grasses seem to be holding on to some moisture since they haven't yet ignited.
"So far we haven't seen any fires, so that's a good sign," Bowser told OurAmazingPlanet. "But that could change in the next several hours."
In West Texas, meteorologists are on the lookout for the strongest winds until 7 p.m. CST (8 p.m. EST) this evening.
Wildfires and gusty winds are a dangerous combination. Dry, hot winds can quickly turn a small fire into a sprawling wildfire, which can be difficult to contain. If a wildfire were to ignite while winds were above 35 mph (56 kph), using helicopters to flight the flames would be too dangerous, so firefighters must rely solely on boots on the ground.