“It is a life-threatening fire day. Any fire that gets started today is going to grow fast,” Finch-Walker said in a Friday news conference.
The town of Mutual, Okla., was forced to evacuate late Thursday night as the flames approached. More than 20 buildings in Woodward County, Okla., have been damaged, and hundreds more are threatened. More than 19,000 acres have burned in the county, and fire has engulfed more than 100,000 acres in neighboring Dewey County.
Strong winds gusting over 30 mph are spreading the fires and creating dangerous conditions for firefighters.
Woodward hit 99 degrees on Thursday, with a searingly dry dew point of 1 degree. That puts relative humidity at about 2 percent, and there is no moisture in the vegetation to help quell the flames. Months of drought have left dead plant material littering the ground, and it’s ideal fuel. Add strong winds to the equation, and embers can quickly become airborne to trigger new fires.
The stage has been set for widespread fire danger in Western Oklahoma for a while now. Since the start of the year, Woodward has picked up only about half an inch of rain. Just a few hundred miles away in southeast Oklahoma, more than two feet of rain has fallen. Interstate 35 is infamous for being the divider between Gulf Coast moisture from the east and more arid, desert air masses from the west. Along this “dryline,” severe storms can spin up, ravaging Central Oklahoma in the spring with some of the gnarliest thunderstorms on the planet.
The dry line has been integral in forecasting fire parameters in Western Oklahoma as it meanders a few miles east and west. This wobbly boundary makes all the difference. The dew point — a measure of how much moisture is in the air — was at a steamy 64 degrees in Oklahoma at lunchtime Friday. But as it teetered through western parts of the Sooner State, some towns saw a 45-degree dew point drop in three hours.
While conditions will improve somewhat in the days ahead, no real relief is on the horizon for beleaguered areas. Winds will remain gusty ahead of a cold front that will drop the temperature to 28 tonight in Woodward — a 75-degree drop in 36 hours.
Thanks to the November 2016 launch of GOES-16, meteorologists can now track the progress of fires in real time from space. The state-of-the-art weather satellite is able to “see” infrared radiation — similar to light outside the visible spectrum — and provide an early warning about where wildfires may quickly develop. By pinpointing these “hot spots,” meteorologists can dispatch fire crews to an area before a blaze breaks out.
Officials are urging residents to obey burn bans, drive only on marked roads and have a “go” bag ready at all times in case fire breaks out, forcing an evacuation.
After this weekend, the focus turns to the severe thunderstorm potential in that neck of the woods toward the middle of next week.