Tuesday's storm douses wildfires, eases drought
For the past three months, Oklahoma has seen fire. Now, it's seen rain.
Sunny days, though, may have ended, at least for a few days.
This year's wildfire season has been a particularly brutal one, scorching more than 420,000 acres in Oklahoma and leaving 26 homes in ashes. But a round of heavy rain that passed through the state Tuesday night and Wednesday morning put an end to the last of the blazes.
“This rainfall was enough to get us out of this," said Michelle Finch, a spokeswoman for the Oklahoma Forestry Service.
The storm swept into the state Tuesday afternoon, dumping 2 inches of rain or more across most of central and western Oklahoma. Rainfall totals were considerably higher in some areas: an Oklahoma Mesonet weather network site at Acme, in Grady County, measured 5 inches of rain during the storm.
In El Reno, powerful winds toppled a tractor-trailer on Interstate 40 shortly after 9 p.m. Tuesday, killing the driver, the Oklahoma Highway Patrol reported. Wind gusts in El Reno reached 95 mph, according to Mesonet records.
In the Texas Panhandle, three storm chasers died Tuesday evening when their vehicles collided at a rural intersection as they sped toward the storm. An SUV containing two storm chasers working under contract to The Weather Channel ran a stop sign Tuesday about 60 miles east of Lubbock and struck a Jeep driven by an amateur from Arizona, authorities said.
Although at least one tornado was reported in the Texas Panhandle, none were confirmed in Oklahoma, the National Weather Service's Norman office reported.
The heavy rain brought relief to parts of the state where crews were still battling wildfires, Finch said.
This year's fire season has kept crews busy, Finch said. Firefighters from the state forestry service and local agencies in Oklahoma have responded to 851 wildfires across 423,887 acres, Finch said. That total doesn't include the estimated 472,000 acres in Kansas that burned in the Starbuck fire, a sprawling blaze that began earlier this month in the Oklahoma Panhandle and spread into southern Kansas.
Before it was brought under control last week, the fire became the largest in the two states' histories.
Even after firefighters managed to contain the Starbuck fire, four other blazes were still burning Tuesday in Hughes, Creek and Seminole counties.
Although rainfall totals in those areas were less than an inch, Finch said the moisture was enough to help firefighters bring those blazes completely under control, as well. The added moisture also allows vegetation to come out of dormancy, marking the end of the spring wildfire season, she said.
Aside from dousing wildfires, heavy rainfall from the storm will likely ease the drought in some parts of the state, said state climatologist Gary McManus.
Before the storm, about 80 percent of the state remained in drought, according to a U.S. Drought Monitor report released last week. About 46 percent of the state was in severe or extreme drought, the report showed.
Heavy rains in the western half of the state could go a long way toward wiping away that drought, McManus said. But much of eastern and south-central Oklahoma wasn't as lucky. The heaviest rain stalled out along a line stretching from Duncan to Vinita. Areas south and east of that line received much less rainfall.
The good news, McManus said, is that Tuesday's storm likely wasn't the state's last chance for rainfall this week. Chances for rain remain in the forecast for most of the state through Tuesday evening.
Forecasters from the National Weather Service's Weather Prediction Center predict between half an inch and 1.5 inches of rain over the next week in central and western Oklahoma, and up to 2 inches in the eastern half of the state.
Contributing: The Associated Press