April's Fiery Chill

Wildfires rolled across the Oklahoma prairie for two weeks in April, scorching hundreds of thousands of acres and placing entire towns in jeopardy. The fires came on the heels of more than six months of drought in which western Oklahoma received virtually no significant precipitation. Vegetation that had seen abundant growth during 2017 lay dormant or dead, awaiting a spark. Weather conditions coalesced on the 12th and 17th to produce fire danger labeled “historic.” As feared, fires roared to life on the 12th, driven to a frenzy on winds gusting to over 50 mph. The two largest fires began near each other in northwest Oklahoma. The “Rhea Fire” ignited southwest of Leedey in Dewey County and would go on to consume over 286,000 acres. The “34 Complex Fire,” began as three separate fires in Woodward and Harper counties that merged into one, eventually burning over 60,000 acres. The fires were not fully contained until the 25th following two helpful rainfall events. Numerous smaller fires dotted the Oklahoma landscape. Nearly 400,000 acres burned across the state during the outbreak, burning dozens of homes and causing tens of millions of dollars in damage. Twenty fire-related injuries were reported by area hospitals, mostly due to smoke inhalation. The fires claimed two lives – a 61-year-old man died in Roger Mills County fighting a small fire that began near Leedey, and a woman died in her vehicle near Seiling.


The drought that began in October 2017 continued on during April, despite some beneficial moisture. According to preliminary numbers from the Oklahoma Mesonet, the statewide average of 2.14 inches was 1.12 inches below normal to rank as the 25th driest April since records began in 1895. Tipton had the lowest total of any Mesonet site with 0.52 inches, although Hollis was close behind at 0.54 inches. Okmulgee led the state with 5.35 inches. Only eight of the Mesonet’s 120 sites finished April with an above normal rainfall total. The statewide deficit for the year through April stood at 1.15 inches, the 60th driest January-April on record. The northwestern half of the state was much drier than the southeast through that period, however, with deficits of 3-6 inches common. Boise City recorded a paltry 0.9 inches of precipitation since the beginning of the year, while Broken Bow has had 28.3 inches.


April was remarkably cool with a statewide average of 54.1 degrees, 5.2 degrees below normal to make it the second coolest on record. Only 1983’s mark of 53.2 degrees was lower. The lowest April temperature of 16 degrees occurred at Buffalo on the fourth and Slapout on the seventh. The highest temperature 102 degrees was reported at four Mesonet sites across western Oklahoma on the 12th. The January-April statewide average temperature was 46.2 degrees, 1.2 degrees below normal to rank as the 50th coolest such period on record.


Despite the modicum of relief experienced by western Oklahoma, the amount of drought in the state remained steady at 47 percent from the end of March through April, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. The percentage of drought considered extreme-to-exceptional, the two worst categories, also remained unchanged at 35 percent. Exceptional drought, the highest level on the Drought Monitor’s intensity scale, actually increased from 15 to 20 percent.


The May temperature and precipitation outlooks from the Climate Prediction Center call for increased odds of above normal temperatures across the entire state, and above normal precipitation across all but the far western Panhandle. The greatest odds for above normal rain amounts fall across far southern Oklahoma. Despite those odds, drought is expected to persist or intensify across much of western Oklahoma due to the severity of the deficits seen in those areas since last October. To the east of that area where drought is not quite as severe, some drought improvement or removal is favored.