Wildfire, drought relief from drenching rain aiming for southern US may only be temporary

A storm is forecast to bring drenching rain along a 1,500-mile-long swath, including areas in drought and experiencing dangerous wildfires, in the southern United States, spanning late this week to early next week.

A large portion of the Southwest and southern High Plains is experiencing severe to exceptional drought conditions, according to the U.S. Drought monitor, and a significantly elevated wildfire risk according to the National Storm Prediction Center.

As of Thursday, large active fires had consumed more than 460,000 acres over the southwestern and south-central U.S., according to the National Interagency Fire Center.

The Rhea Fire burning in western Oklahoma has charred more than 283,000 acres alone, according to Inciweb. As of Thursday afternoon, it was only 15 percent contained.

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While the Southwest and High Plains are normally an arid part of the nation, the region relies on nearby mountain snowstorms and summer thunderstorms for green pastures and water supply.

However, this winter, mountain snowfall in the region has been less than 50 percent of average in many areas. Rainfall outside of the mountains has ranged from 5 to 40 percent over the southern High Plains since Jan. 1, 2018.

The combination of dry brush, dry air, surging temperatures and especially strong winds have created ideal conditions for wildfires to erupt and spread.

Rain to aid in Plains wildfire containment, bring only short-term relief

During the last part of this week, the southern storm will bring much needed rain to at least part of the region. Rainfall is not expected to be earth-shattering, but 0.25 of an inch to 1.50 inches of rain over a large swath will not hurt.

Static beneficial rain Southern Plains
Static beneficial rain Southern Plains

A relatively small amount of snow is also forecast over the mountains, on the order of several inches.

This should be enough rain to help green up dry pastures and brush. Since green vegetation contains much more moisture than dry brush, it should be much harder for fires to ignite in an area that has been hardest hit by wildfires in recent weeks.

"This green-up is likely to be temporary, however, even if a second storm brings sporadic rainfall prior to the end of April," AccuWeather Lead-Long Range Meteorologist Paul Pastelok cautioned.

"We expect areas from western Texas and eastern New Mexico to western Oklahoma, western Kansas and eastern Colorado to have a long, hot summer," Pastelok said. "Potentially, it could be one of the top-five hottest summers on record."

The risk of wildfires is likely to continue in the long term and and may grow worse.

The greatest impact may occur in cattle grazing lands and the water supply in the region.

"If there's not enough grass for the cattle, ranchers may have to sell off herds, which may lead to an initial drop in beef prices, followed by a significant climb in prices, depending on how extensive the drought gets," Pastelok said.

"Thunderstorms from the southwestern U.S. monsoon may turn things around farther west over New Mexico, Arizona and Colorado later this summer," Pastelok said.

Rain to soak southeastern US this weekend, early next week

The swath of rain from the storm will continue to move eastward over the weekend and into early next week.

As the storm moves along, it will draw more moisture from the Gulf of Mexico and later the Atlantic Ocean. The forward speed of the storm may also slow. Rainfall amounts are forecast to increase along the way from Saturday to next week.

Static Southern Rainstorm 11 am
Static Southern Rainstorm 11 am

Rainfall from parts of central Oklahoma and northeastern Texas to Louisiana and central Arkansas may reach 3 inches in some locations through Saturday night. Farther east, rainfall may approach 5 inches from portions of Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Florida and South Carolina from Sunday to Monday.

Enough rain is likely to fall to foil outdoor plans and cause difficult travel conditions for motorists and localized flooding.

The rain may also end the risk of brush fires and put a significant dent in the abnormally dry to severe drought conditions form parts of Florida to Georgia and South Carolina.

The same storm may turn northward and slowly spread rain across the Northeastern states during the middle of next week.