Temperatures during the month of March averaged 6.0 degrees higher than normal at the Midland International Airport, and so far April has averaged 7.5 degrees above normal (as of April 17, 2011). The latest U.S. Drought Monitor valid as of April 12, 2011 places all of west Texas in Extreme (D3) Drought, while some locations across the southwestern Permian Basin, the upper Trans Pecos and Stockton Plateau, the Davis Mountains, and the Marfa Plateau have been included in the most significant drought category – Exceptional (D4).
Likewise, most of Eddy and Lea counties in southeastern New Mexico have been placed in Extreme (D3) Drought.
Though it may now seem like a distant memory, above normal precipitation fell across west Texas and southeastern New Mexico in 2010. This resulted in the green-up and heavy growth of vegetation over the region. With the escalating drought in progress, the vegetation across west Texas and southeastern New Mexico is now at unprecedentedly dry levels. The latest 1000-hour fuel moisture map from the Texas Forest Service shows just how dry it really is across our area. The 1000-hour fuel moisture reflects an average of the amount of moisture in fuels (dry vegetation) over an extended period of time, and is computed from mean daily temperature, relative humidity, and precipitation. Most of west Texas falls in the very dry 4-10 percentile range, while portions of the Guadalupe Mountains, the upper Trans Pecos, and the Big Bend region are in the exceptionally dry <3 percentile range. The heavy fuel-loading has been prime for wildfire spread.
The following photo taken April 13, 2011 shows the very dry fuels located adjacent to the NWS Midland Forecast Office (image courtesy Greg Murdoch):
A series of potent upper level storm systems have also moved from the Rocky Mountains into the central Plains during the months of March and April. Very strong winds spreading across west Texas on the base of the most intense of these storm systems, combined with a tight pressure gradient along the associated deep surface low systems have contributed to periods of windy to very windy conditions across west Texas and southeastern New Mexico. The dryline has also pushed well east of the region on most of these days, allowing very dry air to spread through west Texas, with relative humidity values consistently falling well into the single digits.
All of these factors have contributed to numerous wildfires that have developed and spread across portions of west Texas and southeastern New Mexico during the past couple of months. Since February 25, approximately 543,000 acres of land have been consumed by wildfires in the Midland/Odessa Weather Forecast Office area of responsibility alone. The most significant of these wildfires have impacted Jeff Davis (191,066 total acres burned), Andrews (180,594 total acres burned), Lea (67,000 total acres burned), Pecos (44,675 total acres burned), Midland (16,500 total acres burned), and Brewster (10,855 acres burned) counties. On April 9, the Hickman wildfire claimed 34 structures in Midland county, and the Rockhouse wildfire in Jeff Davis county claimed approximately 23 structures near Fort Davis.
Photo of the Hickman Fire looking to the south of the NWS Midland Office (image courtesy Greg Jackson):
Close-up satellite image of the Rockhouse and Roper fire burn scars:
Tactical slide used by NWS Midland meteorologist Greg Murdoch during a fire weather decision support briefing provided for local officials on April 12, 2011: