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Dry Conditions Spark Wildfires, Parch Wheat Across Central U.S.

  • Wildfires spread across Kansas, Oklahoma amid dry spell
  • Late season freeze could damage any early arriving crops

Spring warmth and dry conditions came early to the central U.S. leaving emerging crops thirsty for rain and touching off fires across the region.

The 3,100 acres (1,255 hectares) of winter wheat on Michael Peters’s farm in Okarche, Oklahoma, have begun to develop about 10 days ahead of schedule amid the above-normal temperatures, he said. While showers last month aided the crop, it was followed by warm, windy weather that pulls moisture from the soil meaning the young plants will need another rain soon.

“Right now, we’re OK,” Peters said by phone. “We’re holding on, but we’re kind of at a critical stage where we’re going to need some pretty quickly.”

Drought and abnormally dry conditions have spread across the southern Great Plains, the lower Midwest and the South, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor in Lincoln, Nebraska. In addition, the threat of wildfires is rising as low humidity and high winds whip across the arid landscape.

“They have no major relief,” Dave Dombeck, a senior meteorologist with AccuWeather Inc. in State College, Pennsylvania, said by phone. “There is no long-term wet period in the next week to 10 days.”

Unseasonable February

While a good rain storm could blunt the dryness, conditions have caused traders to begin to take notice. April and May rainfall can determine hard-red winter wheat yields. As of Feb. 28, hedge funds boosted net-bullish bets on the wheat variety grown on the Plains to the highest since April 2014.

Oklahoma and Missouri have been hardest-hit by drought. Through February, a little more than 73 percent of Oklahoma was in some stage of drought as was about 64 percent of Missouri, the Drought Monitor said.

It was the second warmest February on record across the contiguous 48 states, according to the U.S. National Centers for Environmental Information in Asheville, North Carolina. Texas, Arkansas and Missouri were among the 16 states that had their warmest February, while Oklahoma, Colorado, Nebraska and Kansas each had a February that ranked in their top 10 warmest.

This has created a problem for farmers. The warmth helped wake wheat from dormancy to a premature spring. In addition to raising the need for water, the quick start also puts the plants at risk of a return to colder temperatures.

Fire Season

A drop in temperatures can heighten damage risks for young crops, Kansas State University Extension said in a report last week. Forty-three percent of the state’s wheat was rated in good or excellent condition as of March 5, compared with 56 percent at the same time last year, U.S. Department of Agriculture data show.

The dry weather and warm temperatures have also meant lower humidity and that increased the risk of fire, said Patrick Marsh, warning coordination meteorologist at the U.S. Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Oklahoma.

Eighteen fires consuming about 1.4 million acres were raging across Texas, Oklahoma, Florida, and Mississippi, according to Wednesday’s Southern Area Incident Management Report. Fires were also reported in Colorado and Kansas, and Marsh said large fires are burning in southern Florida.

“Typically late winter to early spring is our peak fire season,” Marsh said by phone. “By the time we get to April and May moisture starts to return and fire season starts to wane.”

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