A fire weather watch issued yesterday for the Texas Panhandle was upgraded today to a red flag warning, in effect from 11 am this morning to 7 pm this evening. By every measure, conditions in Hemphill and surrounding counties in the northern Panhandle are considered critical, with the prospect of a volatile mix of strong southwest winds, low relative humidity levels, dry fuels and extreme drought conditions.
Today’s high is expected to reach 66 degrees under sunny skies, but 10-15 mph southwest winds will increase to 20 to 25 mph in the afternoon, gusting as high as 30 mph. Amarillo’s National Weather Service has issued a fire weather watch for Hemphill County, as well as Hartley, Moore, Hutchinson and Roberts counties, in effect from noon into the early evening.
Countywide outdoor burn bans are already in effect in all of the affected counties.
Elevated fire weather conditions are also possible on Friday across the southern Texas Panhandle, and again Tuesday across most of the combined Texas and Oklahoma Panhandles.
Drought conditions continue to worsen in the Panhandle and expand in other parts of the state. It has been over 100 days since the last wetting rainfall occurred in this area in mid-October. Fuel dryness, and its potential to feed a wildfire, rises steadily with no hint of precipitation in sight.
Strong winds, drying fuel beds, and low relative humidity are the dangerous signs that have alarmed Texas A&M Forest Service officials, who have already begun positioning wildfire response resources in the Panhandle, according to TAMU Chancellor John Sharp, who spoke to Texas Press Association members last weekend. Those resources are intended to provide support to local fire departments and other first responders in the region, and to speed response to wildfire outbreaks.
Hemphill and surrounding counties in the northeastern corner of the Panhandle are now experiencing severe to extreme drought conditions, according to the Texas Water Development Board’s weekly drought monitor, which expects those conditions to persist and expand over the coming months.
Canadian firefighters responded around noon today to a small wildfire near the Hemphill Gas Plant on CR 10 south of town, as 25 mph winds gusted to over 30 mph. They were on scene for over two hours, making sure the flames were out and mopping up.
Relatively small wildfires broke out over the last weekend in Hemphill and Lipscomb counties. According to Canadian Fire Chief Scott Brewster, five area fire departments responded to one of those wildfires, which started near the intersection of US 83 and FM 1268, and burned 110 acres. The fire was ignited by a vehicle driven out into a pasture filled with thick dry grass. A fire on the Double D in Lipscomb County was sparked by a rancher grinding on a fencepost. The rancher had a tractor, Brewster said, and was able to stomp it down until firefighters arrived. There is no burn ban in effect in Lipscomb County.