Wildfires burning in Oklahoma over the past week have claimed the lives of at least two people, injuring 20 others, and leaving dozens of homes destroyed. Images captured by the European Space Agency show the scale of the megafire — which as of Thursday was only 15 percent contained.
Firefighters continue to battle the blaze, with walls of flames reportedly reaching 70 feet at times. “You can’t even imagine the scale of how big they are, how fast they move, and how far they can jump ahead of themselves,” Tulsa Deputy Fire Chief Andy Teeter told Tusla World.
Western Oklahoma is currently suffering a severe drought. The hot and dry conditions have lead to the Rhea Fire — one of four wildfires at the moment — burning since April 12 and covering more than 260,000 acres. The wildfire has officially been called a “megafire” — the term used by the National Interagency Fire Center for wildfires that spread over more than 100,000 acres.
On April 13, the European Space Agency’s Sentinel-2b satellite captured the immense scale of the megafire. The image shows the fire burning just south of Vici, a town of nearly 800 people northwest of Oklahoma City.
One of the more impressive satellite images I’ve ever seen – European Space Agency captures a shot of the #RheaFire last Friday. Check out how close it came to the town of Vici, Oklahoma. (HT @DrewMacFarlane) pic.twitter.com/uOM7wnh14T
— Sean Breslin (@Sean_Breslin) April 19, 2018
According to the latest fire situation report by Oklahoma’s Forestry Services, conditions remain “critically dry” with wind gusts expected between 25 and 40 miles per hour. The highest chances for the fire spreading is where dry land and strong winds meet, the Forestry Services said in its report.
The Rhea fire is Oklahoma’s third megafire in three years. In March 2016 the Anderson Creek Fire blazed across nearly 400,000 acres along the Oklahoma and Kansas border. March 2017 saw an even larger fire, the Northwest Oklahoma fire complex, which engulfed more than 830,000 acres. These three fires are among the top five biggest wildfires experienced in the state over the last 20 years.
While it’s difficult to tie any one event to climate change, more extreme weather conditions brought about by rising global temperatures can contribute to stronger storms and wildfires. Last year’s wildfires, for instance, were 10 times worse than normal due to higher temperatures and strong winds.
The influence of climate change on wildfires is well-documented. Rising temperatures, combined with prolonged drought throughout the West, has prompted wildfires to spread across 16,000 more square miles than they might have otherwise — an area larger than Massachusetts and Connecticut combined. And over the last three decades, wildfire season has also grown longer : as global temperatures have increased, wildfire season lasts, on average 78 days longer than it has in the past.
According to Weather Underground, part of Oklahoma’s ongoing wildfires can be explained by the prolonged dry weather: the Southern High Plains have been “been extraordinarily dry over the last six months.”
“The western third of Oklahoma has seen little more than 2” since October — only about 20 percent of average — and most of the Texas and Oklahoma Panhandles have received much less than 1″, making it the driest six months on record in some locations,” the meteorological website explains. “Any moistening of the landscape has been all too brief, which has left the landscape highly vulnerable to a spell of fire-friendly weather.”
The U.S. Drought Monitor lists conditions in western Oklahoma as “exceptional,” the highest ranking on its drought intensity scale. Some areas have gone more than 185 days without more than one-quarter inch of rain.
In addition to the exceptionally dry weather, Weather Underground writes, the eastern red cedar — a small evergreen tree — has over the years spread widely across the state. The environmental threat of this increase in trees has been compared to the impacts of soil erosion during the Dust Bowl era by a state brochure. When these trees dry out during periods with low rainfall, they can become perfect kindling for wildfires.
As NASA describes it, “The fires are burning through unusually withered prairie grass and pasture lands. Following a dry summer, most winter storms bypassed the region, leaving much of the Southwest in the grip of a serious drought. A recent hard freeze that killed off spring growth made the landscape even more of a tinderbox.”
Widespread rain is expected across Oklahoma going into the weekend. The emergency department hopes this will help improve fire conditions, but the situation remains far from contained.
Extreme fire weather condition warnings are also currently in place for Arizona and New Mexico.