Drought chars Texas, elsewhere

LUBBOCK, Texas — While much of the nation focuses on a spring marked by historic floods and deadly tornadoes, Texas and parts of several surrounding states are suffering through a searing drought that has created desert-like conditions.

Some parts of Texas have not seen any significant precipitation since August. Bayous, cattle ponds and farm fields are drying up, and residents are living under constant threat of wildfires, which have already burned thousands of square miles.

In some places, grass is so dry it crunches underfoot. The nation's leading cattle-producing state just endured its driest seven-month span on record, and some ranchers are culling their herds to avoid paying supplemental feed costs.

May is typically the wettest month in Texas, and farmers planting on nonirrigated acres are clinging to hope that relief arrives in the next few weeks.

"It doesn't look bright right at the moment, but I haven't given up yet," said cotton producer Rickey Bearden, who grows about two-thirds of his 9,000 acres without irrigation in West Texas.

That the drought is looming over the Southwest while floodwaters rise in the Midwest and South reflects a classic signature of La Nina, a cooling of the central Pacific Ocean.

"It's a shift of the jet stream, providing all that moisture and shifting it away from the South, so you've seen a lot of drought in Texas," Mike Halpert, deputy director of the federal government's Climate Prediction Center in Silver Spring, Md.

He said the pattern is "kind of on its last legs," and he expects a neutral condition for much of the summer.

The ground is cracking in parts of many drought-stricken states, including Oklahoma, where it's exceptionally dry in the west and wet in the east.

The parched landscape means the threat of fire is never far away. On Monday, the National Weather Service issued warnings that conditions are ripe for fires in portions of Arizona, Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas.

Texas firefighters have battled hundreds of wildfires that have charred more than 3,500 square miles since November. Humidity of less than 10 percent and wind gusts up to 45 mph across most of West Texas could lead to more blazes.

In Kansas, firefighters have managed to keep a grass fire within the boundaries of the Cimarron National Grassland. The flames have been fanned by winds up to 40 mph and have consumed about 30 square miles since Sunday.

"We recommend everyone be extremely cautious," Kansas Division of Emergency Management spokeswoman Sharon Watson said Monday. "Wind conditions can make things extremely dangerous given the drought."

In New Mexico, the first three months of the year have marked the second-driest start to any year on record. On Monday, a couple of new fires started, adding to the more than 400 that have scorched more than 490 square miles.