April 21, 2021

Dry, Windy Conditions Increase Wildfire Risk In Southeast And Southwest On Wed. & Thur.


Two corners of the country will face an increased risk of wildfires on Wednesday and Thursday as a result of dry, windy conditions spreading behind a cold front that brought unusual late-season snow to folks farther north. The Storm Prediction Center expects "critical" fire weather conditions to exist over the next couple of days in parts of Arizona, New Mexico, and the Carolinas. The fire risk will subside in the southeast with sunset on Wednesday, while the Southwest will see another critical fire weather day on Thursday.

A powerful cold front is steadily marching its way across the U.S. toward the Atlantic Ocean today. It'll finally reach the coast by tonight, leaving behind gusty winds and freezing temperatures in its wake. The cold front brought snow down to the southern Plains on Tuesday, bringing many communities their latest or second-latest snowfalls on record. 

Even areas that don't fall below freezing will see humidity plummet and winds intensify as the front moves through. Just about the entire country save for a few corners of Texas and Florida will experience comfortable dew points over the next couple of days. The combination of dry air, gusty winds, and dry vegetation will increase the chances of wildfires in parts of the Southwest and southeast during the day on Wednesday and Thursday.

Fire weather conditions exist when dry air, gusty winds, and warm temperatures increase the chances that even a small spark could ignite dry vegetation and lead to an out-of-control wildfire. Most wildfires are relatively small—a far cry from the catastrophes we've seen out west recently—but even a fire in an area as small as a field or patch of woods is a hazard to nearby buildings, motorists, folks with respiratory issues, and the safety of crews that have to fight the flames.

Most of South Carolina and a portion of North Carolina will experience critical fire weather conditions during the day on Wednesday, which means that any burns or sparks could ignite a fire that spreads out of control in the windy conditions. While the region has seen tons of rain in recent...well, years...it's been relatively dry for the past couple of weeks. It's been dry enough that dense vegetation could burn quickly and spread to nearby areas.


The greatest concern for wildfires on Wednesday and Thursday is in the Southwest, where the region is mired in an increasingly serious drought. The Storm Prediction Center's fire weather outlook for Wednesday shows critical fire weather conditions likely across much of Arizona and western New Mexico, with an elevated fire risk radiating out from there to include parts of Utah and Colorado on Thursday. The fire risk will continue here through Thursday (shown above), moving a bit east. 

The three categories in the SPC's fire weather outlook work somewhat similar to the way their severe weather outlooks work, but the conditions necessary to prompt issuance of one of the three risk levels—elevated, critical, and extremely critical—vary from one region to the next depending on their dryness and expected conditions. The SPC has a decent explainer on their website (in PDF format) explaining the criteria necessary for each category.


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I graduated from the University of South Alabama in 2014 with a degree in political science and a minor in meteorology. I ran Gawker's The Vane for two years and I've contributed to Mental Floss, Forbes, Popular Science, and the Washington Post's Capital Weather Gang. I also teamed up with Outdoor Life to write a book called The Extreme Weather Survival Manual, which came out in October 2015.

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