At least two first responders have died and vast swaths of territory have been incinerated in a rash of wildfires currently afflicting the wind-whipped, drought-stricken Southern Plains of the United States.
At latest report, the largest blaze had burned nearly 220 square kilometres some 190 kilometres west of Dallas, and was only 30% contained, writes the Guardian.
While rain was in the forecast for early in the week, so too were the strong winds that have been thwarting efforts to contain the Eastland Complex, which comprises several fires in one place, as well as other blazes like the Big L fire. That fire is burning some 120 kilometres southwest of Dallas and is now 20% contained, according to a post by NASA’s Earth Observatory.
The fire activity has prompted the U.S. National Weather Service to issue multiple evacuation orders, the Guardian says.
Describing the catastrophe as the ‘largest wildfire in Texas history,’ Governor Greg Abbott (R) expressed gratitude for “the sacrifice and service of firefighters.”
One wildland firefighter died on duty in Oklahoma. In Texas, Deputy Sergeant Barbara Fenley burned to death when she drove off the road in poor visibility conditions en route to helping an elderly resident evacuate.
NASA said three first responders have died in total, but provided no further details.
While high winds and drought-parched grasses are the immediate causes of the wildfires, low humidity is also a significant factor. Citing a November 2021 study, NASA writes that “burned acreage from wildfires in the western U.S. doubled between the period of 1984-2000 and 2001-2018.”
This conflagration can be attributed “to a significant increase in the vapour pressure deficit, a measurement of how hot and dry the atmosphere can get,” said climate scientists from Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences at the University of California, Los Angeles, and from the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.
The scientists cited global heating as the driver behind the increasing deficits in vapour pressure, a shift which turns grasses to tinder and makes the atmosphere itself “more conducive to sustaining fire.”
Citing the U.S. Drought Monitor, NASA said nearly 75% of the Southern Plains was facing “some level of drought” as of March 17, with some 30% “enduring extreme or exceptional conditions.” The need for rain remained desperate across 91% of Texas and 86% of Oklahoma.