(CNN) — A strong storm system moving through the Rockies and Plains is whipping up winds, raising worries of more fires in the Southwest and tornadoes on the Great Plains.
A tornado touched down in Andover, Kansas on Friday night, according to Jane Welch, a spokesperson for the Kansas Division of Emergency Management.
The extent of the damage is not completely available, but social media images show damaged buildings and flipped cars.
Meanwhile, the West is in the grips of one of the worst droughts in decades, and the fire season has not only started early, but has been setting records.
Since January, over a million acres have burned, well above the year-to-date average of around 632,000 acres. New Mexico has been especially hit hard with 5 large fires currently burning, and the forecast for the next couple of days offers no chance of a break.
New Mexico has already reached its annual rate of fire activity and it’s only April.
“Our season started earlier than in the past,” says Andrew Church, a National Weather Service (NWS) meteorologist with the Albuquerque office.
“Because of climate change and the mega-drought across the western US, there’s just no moisture in the soil anymore,” he goes on to say.
The lack of soil moisture, high temperatures and strong winds are main factors which could lead to existing fires and new ones to spread uncontrollably.
Critical fire threat increases to extreme today
Red flag warnings have been issued as winds will be whipping in some of the driest air yet, particularly in Kansas, Colorado and New Mexico. Friday’s fire danger will rise to the level 3 of 3 “extremely critical” range, as conditions worsen.
The area facing level 3 conditions encompasses portions of southeast Colorado, including the city of Pueblo.
Critical fire conditions (Level 2 out of 3) are in place for the Denver area.
House-to-house evacuations are being conducted in Arvada, CO, a suburb of Denver, Friday afternoon, as a grass fire burns in the area, according to a tweet from Arvada Police.
The fire is moving to the east, and alerts will be sent to homes in the area, police said.
“Winds in this area are expected to be sustained at 30 to 40 mph with gusts up to 55 mph,” says the Storm Prediction Center.
“We’ve already had three days at the extreme level this year and were a bit concerned about this one. We’ve had multiple fires so far this year,” says Kyle Mozley, a meteorologist with NWS in Pueblo.
“Any fire that does start will have the ability to spread rapidly and that includes throwing cigarette butts out to campfires to downed power lines and things like that, that would be another fear,” Mozley says.
“Along with this ‘extreme’ concern, we cannot dismiss the expanded ‘critical’ area, which covers portions of five states (NM, CO, TX, OK and KS) and includes Albuquerque, Colorado Springs, Lubbock, Amarillo and Midland, Texas,” the Storm Prediction Center said. “Dry, windy conditions in the region will be at the top of the critical threshold, near extreme critical criteria.”
Current major fires they are monitoring include the Tunnel Fire in Arizona, where 19,075 acres have burned, and the blaze is at 89% containment; and the Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon Fire in New Mexico, which has spread to 65,824 acres and is 37% contained.
Wildfires in northeastern New Mexico have damaged or destroyed nearly 300 structures, including 166 residences, authorities said in a news conference Thursday evening.
The Calf Canyon and Hermits Peak fires have destroyed 166 residences, 108 outbuildings and three commercial properties in San Miguel County, according to San Miguel County Sheriff Chris Lopez. Fourteen additional structures have been damaged.
Hard to believe but the drought gets worse
The US Drought Monitor brought more bad news on Thursday. The Southwest and southern Plains saw further drought intensification in the last week.
“Deterioration was common across the Southwest, with exceptional drought (the 2 highest designation) broadly expanding in New Mexico and moderate to severe drought increasing in coverage across parts of Arizona and Colorado,” the drought summary said.
New Mexico has double the area covered by exceptional drought (the highest level); it now comprises over 15% of the state. Drought in the state has steadily intensified since the beginning of the year, with nearly 68% of the state now in extreme to exceptional drought.
“It looks like it’s going to get worse before it gets better,” says Church. “We used to see relative humidity go up behind the cold fronts, but with the soil moisture completely depleted, the air stays dry with single-digit relative humidity and leads to these fire threats.”
He continues, “we might have to wait quite a while until the monsoon rains kick in, hopefully sometime in late June.”
Rain to the east, along with another threat
It’s a different kind of threat in the Plains on Friday. As needed rains miss the West and Southwest, thunderstorms could become violent in the Plains with severe weather elements such as damaging winds, large hail and even tornadoes, as a potent storm tracks from the Rockies eastward.
The Storm Prediction Center (SPC) has increased the threat of severe storms to a Level 4 out of 5 “moderate” risk across portions of Kansas and Nebraska, including Lincoln and Hastings. “All severe weather hazards will be possible, but destructive wind gusts may ultimately become the more widespread hazard across south-central to eastern NE and north-central/northeast KS,” the SPC said in its updated discussion.
Overall the severe storm threat encompasses over 10 million people across the Central Plains, where “multiple forecast scenarios are expected to unfold this afternoon and continue into tonight,” according to the SPC. While destructive winds are possible across portions of Nebraska and Kansas, a few strong tornadoes and very large hail (baseball to softball-sized) are also still possible Friday afternoon and into the overnight hours.
The severe storms are expected to continue through the evening and into the overnight hours.
A tornado watch has been issued for eastern Kansas and southeastern Nebraska until 11 p.m. CDT. This watch includes Topeka and Wichita in Kansas and Lincoln, Nebraska. The SPC warned “a couple of intense tornadoes are likely,” along with wind gusts up to 70 mph and hail up to 3 inches in diameter.
Meteorologist Ray Sondag with the NWS in Tulsa told CNN he expects the worst time to be between 6 p.m. and midnight.
“If we get a dryline setting up, which we think we will, these thunderstorms will move into southeast Oklahoma and could produce tennis ball-size hail along with 70 mph winds and a few tornadoes.”
On Saturday, the Midwestern cities of St. Louis, Chicago and Indianapolis will see the threat of severe storms.
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