OKLAHOMA CITY – Emergency officials in Oklahoma, Texas and Kansas are bracing for two types of disasters as spring gets into full swing: The start of what's historically the most active time of year for tornadoes plus wildfire threats brought on by severe drought.
April, May and June are the most active months in the U.S. for tornadoes. At the same time, the three states on the southern end of Tornado Alley are experiencing extreme and exceptional drought that could fuel wildfires.
Tornado Alley extends from northern Texas and covers much of Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska and South Dakota, plus slivers of New Mexico and Colorado, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Storm Prediction Center.
The past three years, the U.S. has seen an average of more than 600 tornadoes during April, May and June, according to the center . That is more than half the average of 1,186 tornadoes per year during that time span, although the numbers from the last three months of 2017 are still considered preliminary.
Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas are accustomed to preparing for multiple emergency situations happening at once and train with various agencies to account for different possibilities.
"We're typically preparing for worst-case scenarios year-round anyway," state Department of Emergency Management spokeswoman Keli Cain said, noting that the SPC reports Oklahoma City has been struck by more tornadoes than any other U.S. city, with more than 100 known twisters. "We do have some experience at that. We plan for all hazards anyway."
Katie Horner, spokeswoman for the Kansas adjutant general's division of emergency management, said last year the state dealt with a blizzard, an ice storm, fire, flooding and a tornado warning all in the same week. "We train not only for one or two events in a day, but three or four events in a day," she added.
Chip Orton, the emergency management director for Amarillo, a city of about 200,000 in the Texas Panhandle, says, "My job is to be worried."
"That's why we come to work every day. Is it likely? Probably not. Could it happen? Sure," he said.
While tornadoes are the result of thunderstorms, which are created from conditions that include moisture, the current dry conditions in the area do not preclude twisters, said Storm Prediction Center meteorologist Patrick Marsh. He noted that two tornadoes were reported in the Texas Panhandle on March 18, even as the area was rated in extreme drought.
Some private forecasting services are predicting an increase in tornadoes during the coming months, based largely on the fact that there was the climate phenomenon La Nina during the past winter. They're expecting weather patterns in the coming months to be wetter and warmer than usual, particularly in the southeastern U.S. and along the Gulf Coast.
"(Those conditions) would be a petri dish for thunderstorms. You need to add an additional ingredient for tornados. ... You need wind shear. Wind shear is best described as a change in wind speed and direction," Marsh said, and is created when cold air and warm air collide at the surface.
The national Storm Prediction Center, however, does not forecast severe weather more than about a week in advance.
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