TULSA, Okla. (AP) — As extreme drought and scorching heat creep back into the Southern Plains, ranchers and state foresters fear a repeat of last summer's tinderbox conditions that turned pastures into wasteland, sparked hundreds of wildfires and ravaged countless acres of crops.
The region is already reeling from a blistering June, where temperatures reached 112 degrees in the Oklahoma towns of Buffalo and Freedom, and Little Rock saw its highest-ever June temperature — 107 degrees.
As a result, U.S. Drought Monitor has deemed parts of Arkansas in an "extreme" drought, and nearly half of Oklahoma, which suffered through the hottest summer ever recorded in the U.S. last year, is considered to be in a drought.
With the hottest two months of the year still ahead and little prospect of rain, some farmers and ranchers are bracing for the worst as pastures become parched and ponds and reservoirs dry up. The heat is so intense that some farmers have seen hay bales spontaneously combust this summer.
"The grass and the cattle hay has become very short again in this area; the volume of hay is not anywhere near normal," said rancher Greg Leonard, who grows wheat, soybeans and corn and has about 75 head of cattle near the northeastern Oklahoma town of Afton. "We're running out of grass again very fast here and it's only July."
Last summer, many farmers were forced to buy hay on the open market, trucked in from states such as Texas and Kentucky. Some desperate ranchers shelled out $100 for one bale, said Leonard, who already has been asked by locals if he has hay for sale.
Arkansas rancher Larry Prater lost nearly 100 bales of hay last year to spontaneous combustion. He's wary of enduring another torrid summer.
"In my neighborhood, my pastures are drier at this time of year than they've ever been," said Prater, who lives in Cedarville, about 15 miles north of Fort Smith.
Gary McManus, Oklahoma's associate state climatologist, said the state is nowhere close to what it experienced last year, when triple-digit temperatures, wildfires and water rationing became routine in many communities. But deteriorating conditions could easily change that.
"The fact we still have the bulk of the summer left to go ... it leads us to worry about drought intensification," McManus said.
Firefighters and forestry officials are warning that brittle, bone-dry grassland and timber could be one match strike away from a disastrous wildfire.
Mike Karlin, assistant chief of the Weatherford Fire Department in western Oklahoma, where some hay bales recently burst into flames because of the heat, said the threat of wildfires is greater this year because the state got enough spring rain to allow vegetation to grow. That's compared to last year, when the oppressive drought that began in 2010 still plagued Oklahoma and left much of the landscape cracked and dry.
"The rains allowed the growth to get up pretty good, so there are a lot of troubles this year," Karlin said. "That moisture has gone and it's gotten extremely dry out.
"We're dealing with a situation that's fast approaching what we saw last year," he said.
Last year's drought had a $1.6 billion impact on agriculture in Oklahoma, one of the most significant weather-related losses the state has ever seen, said Blayne Arthur, associate commissioner at the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry.
"The challenge now is that we didn't get the rain we wanted to see in June, and then with these extreme triple-digit temperatures, it not only burns up pasture, it also makes it so there's not much hay production. It's a double whammy to (ranchers)," she said.
Leonard, the Afton rancher, remembers when he would sit with his buddies at a cafe and talk about plantings and harvests. That was when the weather seemed to cooperate with their plans.
But after a string of brutal summers, "nobody knows what's normal anymore," he said. "It all boils down to Mother Nature and somebody more powerful than us. Mother Nature is still in charge."