Fox News Weather Center

Experts: Drought Could Continue in Southern U.S.

texas wildfire

April 9: A herd of cattle run from a wildfire near Marfa, Texas. The fire danger remains high in West Texas where firefighters are battling a blaze that's destroyed dozens of homes in two communities, and crews are trying to contain fires elsewhere in the state. (AP/ (AP2011)

FORT WORTH, Texas -- The extreme drought that has gripped parts of nine states -- most of them across the southern U.S. -- is expected to drag on for several months or intensify, posing a risk for more wildfires, agriculture problems and water restrictions, national weather experts said Monday.

Portions of Texas and a small part of western Louisiana are the only parts of the nation that rank in the National Weather Service's worst drought condition category, said Victor Murphy, the climate service program manager for the National Weather Service's southern region, based in Fort Worth. The "exceptional" drought level happens once every 50 to 100 years, he said.

Much of the rest of Texas and Louisiana are in extreme drought conditions -- the worst in 20 to 50 years -- as are parts of Arizona, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Florida and tiny portions of Colorado and Kansas. Other areas of those states are experiencing severe and moderate drought conditions, along with parts of Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina.

May is "pretty much our last chance to mitigate this thing," because that month typically brings the most rainfall in many of the bone-dry states, including Texas and Oklahoma, which need about 4 inches (10 centimeters) of rain in the next month, Murphy said.

The widespread drought was spawned last year by La Nina, a condition that changes wind and air pressure patterns. It brought warmer-than-normal temperatures and less rainfall to the southern and central U.S., drying out grass and shrubs that have become fuel for wildfires that have ignited and raged out of control in several states.

Since Jan. 1, New Mexico wildfires have scorched more than 390 square miles (1,010 square kilometers) and destroyed 15 homes. Among the fires was a massive 15,000-acre (6,070-hectare) blaze that firefighters were still battling Monday south of Carlsbad, said Dan Ware, a spokesman for the New Mexico State Forestry Division.

So far this year Florida grass fires have blackened about 87 square miles (225 square kilometers), according to the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services' Division of Forestry.

Texas wildfires have burned more than 2,900 square miles (7,500 square kilometers) since the beginning of the year, destroying about 400 homes and leading to the deaths of two firefighters, according to the Texas Forest Service.

Overnight storms in North Texas only brought short-term relief to a small parched area of the state but did help firefighters get a 127,000-acre (51,400-hectare) fire 70 percent contained, Murphy said. The only significant rainfall on the horizon is for Arkansas, but too much rain there could bring flooding, he said.

Based on weather forecasts, the drought likely will persist and even get worse in Texas, New Mexico and Oklahoma -- as well as in eastern Arizona, eastern Colorado and western Kansas, said David Brown, regional climate services director for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. But a little improvement is predicted for a small band stretching from the middle of Oklahoma across northern Texas and Louisiana, Brown said. Drought conditions are expected to improve in eastern Oklahoma, and much of Arkansas and Florida, he said.

"The drought doesn't just lead to elevated risks for wildfires, but it affects agriculture because of spring planting and also puts a stress on water resources," Brown said.