Warm weather brings a taste of spring to central and western United States

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OMAHA, Neb. — A warm front swept springlike weather across a large swath of the country Sunday in what is usually one of the coldest months of the year, sending people out of their homes to enjoy the rare winter respite but also bringing increased wildfire danger.

In Omaha, Nebraska, the temperature Sunday broke 65 degrees (18.3 degrees Celsius) on a day when the average high temperature is around the freezing mark, according to the National Weather Service.

“Omaha is having its second warmest February on record in its 154-year history of tracking weather,” National Weather Service meteorologist Michaela Wood said Sunday. “And there’s a chance of beating the record yet tomorrow, when we’re looking at a high temperature of around 80.”

The sunny warmth brought Stacy Lawson, and her husband, Hugh Lawson, of Omaha, outside for a game of pickleball with friends. But they weren’t the only ones.

“Outdoor courts are prime real estate when it’s warm,” Stacy Lawson said. “The first one we tried was already filled.”

The Lawsons and their competitors, Tim and Andrea Driscoll, had a hard time remembering the last year they were able to play outside in February.

“In Nebraska, February is both the shortest and longest month of the year,” Tim Driscoll deadpanned.

While the warmer-than-usual temperatures may have provided a break from harsh winter conditions, it didn’t come without some concerns. The National Weather Service cited the warmth, along with low humidity, winds gusting more than 35 mph (56 kph) in places, and dry winter vegetation in issuing fire danger alerts in an area stretching across parts of 11 states.

Red flag warnings and fire weather watches were issued in parts of New Mexico, Colorado, Texas, Oklahoma, up to Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota, and east to Iowa, Illinois and Missouri. Nearby states, including parts of Arkansas, Minnesota and Wisconsin, were issued hazardous weather outlooks because of an increased fire danger, according to weather service maps.

Grass fires were reported in the Colorado Springs, Colorado, area on Sunday as a red flag warning was in effect for much of the eastern part of the state.

A fire has burned approximately 3 square miles (2.6 square kilometers) of land at the Fort Carson Army post south of Colorado Springs. The fire started in an area where artillery can land or hand grenades and guns are used in training exercises, said spokesperson John Switzer. The cause of the fire is under investigation, and no buildings were immediately threatened.

A much smaller brush fire was burning on the grounds of the U.S. Air Force Academy north of Colorado Springs, spokesperson Katherine Spessa said. No buildings are threatened, but some pre-evacuation instructions were being given, she said.

A grassfire whipped up by high winds closed Interstate 25 near the Colorado-Wyoming border for about an hour Saturday before it was extinguished, according to the Wyoming Highway Patrol.

The unusually early warm spell could telegraph trouble ahead, Wood said. The Climate Prediction Center says there is an elevated chance of higher-than-normal temperatures and lower-than-normal rain for the region through the end of summer.

“If we keep going in this trend, we could go back into a drought, and that would be a big concern — especially when it comes to fire risk,” she said.

Temperatures reached into the 60s in Denver, Chicago and Des Moines, Iowa, on Sunday, and Kansas City, Missouri, saw temperatures in the mid-70s. The unseasonably warm conditions saw plenty of people heading outdoors to play in local parks, wash their cars and even get an early jump on lawn care.

In Chicago, people who would normally be in winter gear to fight off the city’s famously bitter winter winds instead frolicked around Lake Michigan’s shores in light jackets or even shorts and T-shirts.

Bethany Scheiner, 53, took advantage of the weather to head with her 14-year-old son to Lincoln Park in Chicago so he could practice his football punting skills.

“It’s so unusual,” Scheiner said of the warm weather. “I mean, this is the month we all go away to get away from the Chicago winter.”

The warmup is expected to bring some record-breaking high temperatures Monday, Wood said. But by Tuesday night, a cold front will drop the region back into winter, with wind chills below zero and snow in much of the central part of the country by Wednesday.

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