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Red flag warnings issued as 'critical' fire weather builds in Southwest

By Alex Sosnowski, Accuweather.com

Fire weather watches and red flag warnings are in effect across interior portions of the southwestern United States as elevated and critical wildfire conditions are expected across parts of New Mexico and West Texas through at least late this week.

Little rainfall in recent weeks has left the region parched, with the stage set for wildfire fuel. The last storm that brought significant rainfall in areas from southeastern Arizona to much of New Mexico and West Texas was during the middle of March.

This image, captured at 8:30 a.m. MDT Wednesday, April 22, 2020, shows the southwestern United States and northwestern Mexico. Thick clouds associated with building thunderstorms can be seen over central Texas and Oklahoma to the east. Photo courtesy of NOAA
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Rainfall typically drops off in this zone during the spring, prior to the North American monsoon, which begins in early July, but some areas have not received a drop since mid-March.

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Dry air, sunshine and breezy conditions have dried out the dead vegetation from last year's growth.

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"As winds kick up over the next few days, the combination of very dry air, sunshine and building heat will push the fire danger to critical levels in the Interstate-10, I-25 and I-40 corridors of the Southwest into this weekend," AccuWeather meteorologist Brett Edwards said.

Dried brush can more easily ignite when the relative humidity is low, the sun is heating the ground and gusty winds are present. Gusts from the north and west are likely to average 40-50 mph but can be higher locally.

"The windy conditions may not only allow any fires that break out to spread rapidly but may also make containment especially difficult," Edwards said.

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Another factor into Friday will be blowing dust that can drop the visibility to near zero and pose a significant hazard for motorists in open, flat areas where there are no visible landmarks and it may be difficult to distinguish the difference between the pavement and shoulder areas.

Compounding the danger, the hottest weather of the season so far is on the way, with summerlike conditions expected to build.

"The pattern will deliver not only the first 90-degree temperatures of the season so far to places such as Phoenix, Arizona, but also the first 100-degree readings," AccuWeather senior meteorologist Rob Miller said.

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While the windiest conditions for most areas are likely into Friday, the upward trend in temperature to record-challenging levels in some cases may continue the wildfire risk until more areas green up.

An area that has been experiencing triple-digit heat already this month is the lower Rio Grande Valley of Texas.

There is no sign of any appreciable, widespread rain into the first part of May, so the fire risk may linger for weeks in some areas.

Parts of South Texas are experiencing severe to exceptional drought conditions, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. McAllen, Texas, has received only a little over 1.50 inches of rain since Jan. 1, which is a little over one-third of its average rainfall for the period.

The strengthening sun and heat with little to no rain in the coming weeks will only make matters worse for this agricultural area of Texas.

Storm systems that have been producing rounds of severe weather and torrential rainfall in the Southern states have generally been passing by too far to the north this winter and early spring to bring much in the way of beneficial rain to South Texas.

Winds will be relatively light over the lower Rio Grande Valley, so while there is some wildfire ignition risk, the potential has not reached critical levels.

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Other areas that are at some risk of wildfire ignition include the Four Corners region, as well as portions of Nevada and California.

"These areas have received some rain and mountain snow in recent weeks, so the existing dead and live vegetation is not as dry as areas centered on southern New Mexico," Edwards said, adding that there is still some wildfire risk outside of the critical zone.

Forecasters urge people to exercise caution when using outdoor power equipment and to avoid open flames and parking vehicles over dry brush as the hot exhaust system can start a fire in seconds.

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