Statewide drought declared as wildfire season begins

Milk is the official beverage of South Carolina, but the state would likely be happier with water - as in rainwater.

During its Feb. 19 meeting, the state drought response committee upgraded the water conditions of 16 counties along the coast and Pee Dee regions to "incipient" drought conditions which puts the entire state under some level of drought conditions.

"Incipient" means the threat of a drought is there and the conditions are right for one to occur.

Barnwell County was already in the incipient category before Feb. 19, said Barnwell County Administrator Pickens Williams Jr.

Williams is a county representative on the state drought response committee. He was not at the Feb. 19 meeting.

For counties under incipient status, DNR is asking local officials to keep tabs on its area's water conditions and encouraging residents to be conservative with water usage, Williams said.

"Out West, water is constantly on their mind. Here, we don't tend to think about it," he said.

"To me, it means being on watch," Williams said of the incipient status.

Barnwell County is faring better that it did in terms of water compared to other counties, he said.

In June 2008, the county was under moderate drought conditions, which is one level higher in severity than incipient. However, by September, Barnwell County was back in the incipient category, Williams said.

During this latest meeting, the drought committee supported a recent request by DNR, the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control and the Georgia Environmental Protection Division to the Savannah District Corps of Engineers to assess reducing lake releases in the Savannah River basin. The assessment would check the effects of reducing the releases from Lake Thurmond from 3,600 cubic feet per second (cfs) to 3,100 cfs from March to May 2009, according to a Feb. 19 DNR press release.

The lake releases are to help alleviate the drought along the Savannah River, the DNR press release stated.

The drought committee's inclusion of the whole state within drought conditions comes as the spring wildfire season starts for the S.C. Forestry Commission.

Even if there were no drought, there is a wildfire season from mid-February through April, said Darryl Jones, the forest protection chief for the S.C. Forestry Commission.

However, the drought can add another contributing factor to wildfires but not necessarily red flags - the warnings the forestry commission issues advising state residents not to burn, he said.

"Red flags are not always tied to a drought. It can contribute to a wildfire. For us, we look at fuel availability (in issuing a red flag advisory), Jones said.

Jones is the S.C. Forestry Commission representative on the drought committee.

Dry conditions, low relative humidity (under 25 percent), winds and the drought make for a perfect combination for wildfires, he said.

Two weeks without rain can leave an area ripe for fire because of the fuel loads or dry tinderbrush and grasses that would flare up quick from a backfiring car or carelessly tossed lighted cigarette, Jones said.

Red flags can also be issued for other reasons, such as last year after the region experienced several tornadoes. The forestry commission waved a red flag because too many firefighters were already handling the aftermath of the tornadoes, he said.

However, 45 percent of wildfires begin from backyard burning that gets out of hand, Jones said.

The state forester can issue a statewide burning ban to temporarily prohibit all outdoor burning, including agricultural field burns, he said.

The governor himself can also issue a burning ban. The only difference is it allows agricultural burning, Jones said.

How much rain would break the drought?

It depends on who is asked, Jones said.

Short bursts of rain every few days for several weeks would ease foresters' worries about wildfires, he said.

However, it would take longer, more sustained rains to ease a farmer's worries. Finally, it would take a great deal of rain to soak in and raise the water table before a hydrologist can feel the drought is dissolving, Jones said.

As if to underscore the beginning wildfire season, Barnwell County firefighters responded to several grass fires last week.

On grass fire on Reynolds Road between Blackville and Barnwell scorched seven acres near Faith Road, said Barnwell Rural Fire Chief Jessie Elmore.

"It was caused by people burning their trash," he said.

Besides Barnwell Rural, Long Branch, Elko and Williston firefighters responded to the fire. S.C. Forestry sent its regional fire tractor to help as well.

"That wind grabbed some of it (the embers) and put it in that hayfield. There were several structures in danger before we got here," Elmore said.

The firefighters did not have to set up a water shuttle, but surrounded the blaze with the fire vehicles and fought it from them, he said.