CHICAGO — Winds swept wildfires in the drought-stricken Texas panhandle toward the Oklahoma border on Wednesday, prompting authorities to evacuate several towns.
But officials said the worst fires had been extinguished and that rain this weekend should provide relief.
The fires were concentrated east of Amarillo in the Texas panhandle and as of Wednesday had charred about 840,000 acres, decimating crops and pastures. The Texas Animal Health Commission estimates the fires killed about 10,000 head of livestock, mostly cattle.
The Texas Forest Service said evacuations were ordered on Wednesday afternoon in all of Lipscomb County and parts of Ochiltree County, both along the border with Oklahoma.
While the worst fires had been extinguished, there were still “hot spots,” Texas Department of Public Safety spokesman Daniel Hawthorne said. On Sunday, smoke forced a four-hour closure of Interstate 40, where a nine-car pile up killed four people, he said.
“The weather reports say we will get some rain. We are just hoping that we do,” said Hawthorne.
Forecasts called for 1 to 2.5 inches of rain this weekend.
“The Texas panhandle, western Kansas and eastern Colorado could receive an inch to two-plus inches, and heavier rains as you go east from there,” said Harvey Freese of Freese-Notis Weather in Des Moines, Iowa.
“The storm system is going to be moving slowly and may even intensify as we go into next week,” Freese said, adding that the storm could pose a flood risk to the Mississippi River Delta and the southern Ohio River Valley.
Crops in the Plains have struggled with dry weather dating back to last fall.
The wet forecasts buoyed crop prospects, prompting declines in wheat futures at the Chicago Board of Trade and the Kansas City Board of Trade this week. But feeder cattle prices firmed on Wednesday at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange.
“We have a high probability for moisture,” said Dennis Kissler, managing director of the Oklahoma City brokerage firm KIS/OKC Trading. “If we get that, we are going to green up the pastures and hold some of these cattle back.”
Drought has greatly reduced pastures needed to graze cattle. As a result, ranchers in recent weeks have had to sell their young cattle to feedlots.
Meteorlogix forecaster Joel Burgio predicted a bit less rain, although Meteorlogix expanded its coverage area for the heaviest weekend showers to include southwest Kansas.
“Right now our feeling is precipitation totals will average 0.25 to 1 inch, with some locally heavier. The coverage should be pretty good. The possible exception to this is in the Texas panhandle, where it might be a little less,” Burgio said.
“The low tracks right across the panhandle, and a lot of times the moisture is north of the low,” he said.
Temperatures in the Plains were expected to cool late this week, a factor that should help winter wheat by slowing its growth and therefore reducing its need for moisture.
Highs by Saturday were expected to peak in the 20s and 30s Fahrenheit in the northern HRW belt, reaching the 40s and low 50s in the south.
The Meteorlogix six- to 10-day outlook for March 20-24 called for below-normal temperatures and near- to above-normal precipitation.
“There is the potential for an additional shower system within the six- to 10-day period,” Burgio said.