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Wildfires Erupt During Warm February

Published: Friday, March 1, 2024

Wildfires tore through northwestern Oklahoma in late February, propelled by severe winds gusting to over 60 mph, relative humidity values in the teens, and temperatures soaring more than 30 degrees above normal. Over 140,000 acres were scorched in Oklahoma, with Oklahoma Emergency Management officials reporting the loss of at least 13 homes, as damage assessments continued through the month's end. Additionally, reports of lost livestock and other structures emerged. The most significant wildfires erupted on the 27th, prompting evacuations in several small towns and leading to numerous road closures. The Smokehouse Road fire alone consumed over a million acres in the Texas Panhandle before spreading into Ellis and Roger Mills counties in far western Oklahoma. The fires belched ash and smoke eastward and then southward across Oklahoma, triggering health alerts for individuals with respiratory issues downwind from the blazes. A cold front surged through the state later on the 27th, altering the fires' paths from eastward to southward, with the abrupt change endangering more lives and property. Although a bit of snow and rain on the 29th aided wildfire suppression efforts, the larger fires in far western Oklahoma persisted as February drew to a close.

Oklahoma experienced a significant temperature surge throughout February, bidding a not-so-fond farewell to the wintry weather that plagued the state in January. Twenty-three of the 29 days in February featured above-normal temperatures statewide, with many days recording temperatures 10-20 degrees higher than the average. According to preliminary data from the Oklahoma Mesonet, the statewide average temperature was 49.2 degrees, marking it as the sixth-warmest February since records began in 1895, with a deviation of 6.8 degrees above normal. Northeast Oklahoma matched its warmest February on record with an average of 49.4 degrees, tying with 1976 and boasting an impressive 8.4 degrees above normal. The highest temperature recorded during the month was 93 degrees at the Mangum Mesonet site on Feb. 26, while the lowest reading of 10 degrees was reported at Eva on Feb. 28. Climatological winter concluded as the eighth warmest December-February on record, with a statewide average of 42.6 degrees, surpassing the normal by 2.4 degrees.

The statewide average precipitation total settled at 1.35 inches, marking a deficit of 0.34 inches and ranking as the 59th driest February since records began in 1895. While most of the state experienced below-average precipitation for the month, surplus amounts were observed from southwest up through north-central Oklahoma, as well as in the western Panhandle. Conversely, far southeast Oklahoma encountered the most significant deficits, ranging from 1-2 inches, positioning it as the 36th driest February on record for that region. Precipitation totals ranged from 2.66 inches at Skiatook to 0.27 inches at Beaver. Climatological winter fared slightly better with a statewide average of 6.45 inches, surpassing the norm by 1.08 inches and ranking as the 25th wettest December-February period since 1895.

The winter brought more profound relief from drought, aided by a strong El Niño event. Drought coverage in the state plummeted from 34% at the beginning of December 2023 to the current level of 3%, with only 0.2% categorized as “severe.” The remaining drought retreated to several small strongholds fueled by long-term deficits in northeastern and southern Oklahoma. The March outlooks from the Climate Prediction Center indicate increased odds of above-normal precipitation across far northern Oklahoma and above-normal temperatures across the northeastern two-thirds of the state. Other areas are forecast to have equal odds of above-, below-, and near-normal conditions for both parameters during March. The CPC’s March drought outlook suggests improvement in drought conditions across far northeastern Oklahoma, while conditions are expected to remain steady in the southern region. No new drought areas are anticipated to develop during the month.