By Carey Gillam
KANSAS CITY, Missouri (Reuters) - Raging wildfires and scorching heat across the South over the last week, added to the human, economic and agricultural toll of a historic drought that climatologists said was only growing more dire.
A tropical storm that moved out of the Gulf of Mexico within the last week brought no relief and instead brought high winds that fueled wildfires, according to a weekly report dubbed the U.S. Drought Monitor that was issued Thursday by a consortium of state and federal climatologists.
"In a bit of cruel irony, it was the strong and persistent winds of (Tropical storm) Lee, which just missed the mark of the drought's epicenter in Texas, Oklahoma and New Mexico, that fanned the large number of fire outbreaks in Texas," the report said.
"These people are really suffering out there," said climatologist Mark Svoboda, who is stationed at the University of Nebraska's National Drought Mitigation Center. "How can it get any worse?"
Svoboda said a new tropical storm dubbed "Nate" was moving toward southern Texas and should make landfall late next week.
"We'll see where that goes. That might be the next potential shot of relief for Texas," Svoboda said.
Texas has been the hardest hit by the long-lasting drought, which is the longest on record for the key agricultural state.
According to the Drought Monitor levels of extreme and exceptional drought in Texas totaled 95.68 percent, up from 95.04 percent of that state's area a week earlier, the Drought Monitor reported.
The dry conditions, coupled with persistent temperatures well above 100 degrees, has sparked wildfires throughout the state. So far this year, 18,719 fires have burned over 3.5 million acres and thousands of homes and other structures, according to the Texas Forest Service.
Some 1,386 homes were destroyed in a monstrous fire southeast of Austin, officials said Thursday, the worst such destruction by fire of any blaze in Texas history. Two people have died and 5,000 have been evacuated.
More than 95 percent of the state's pasture and rangelands are rated as poor or very poor, leaving little for livestock to eat or drink. Texas officials peg damages at more than $5 billion.
Oklahoma also continues to suffer. Extreme and exceptional levels of drought now are spread across 85.44 percent of the state, up from 85.37 percent a week earlier. New Mexico saw extreme and exceptional drought levels grow to 72.19 percent of the state, up from 64.88 percent, the Drought Monitor reported.
(Reporting by Carey Gillam; Editing by Alden Bentley)