As drought conditions in northeastern Alabama continued to ease this week, the U.S. Forest Service got back to one of its jobs in the Talladega National Forest: setting things on fire.
The service’s fire crews planned to burn 155 acres north of Coleman Lake on Friday, their second prescribed burn of 2017.
The burn comes one day after the latest U.S. Drought Monitor report showed a one-category improvement in dryness in the top half of Alabama, where extreme drought has given way to severe. It’s the best improvement in the long-running drought seen yet this year.
The Forest Service uses the fiery prescriptions to maintain balance in the forest.
Fire management officer Scott Layfield said Friday’s burn ought to restore the natural ecosystem in the stand of pine north of the lake and its remote campground.
The service also burns to reduce buildup in the forest of heavier fuels — dead logs and such, Layfield said. It wasn’t able to do much of that the last three months of 2016.
“In the fall and early winter, we typically burn anywhere from 2,000 to 4,000 acres,” Layfield said. “That whole time period, we were fighting wildfires.”
The drought made it much easier for those wildfires to spark, and eventually led to a statewide ban on outdoor flame issued by Gov. Robert Bentley in November and lifted in early December.
Layfield said the service battled at least 22 fires between October and November, and assisted on another five or so outside national forest lands.
“It was all hands on board,” Layfield said, with every able Forest Service body asked to assist. Even the biologists helped.
“It was definitely a strain,” Johnathan Stober, one of those wildlife biologists, said Friday. The extra work left him to juggle his other responsibilities, he said; while nothing got dropped, he’s functionally two months behind.
Alabama ended 2016 with a rainfall deficit of 17.54 inches, according to National Weather Service meteorologists.
The lack of rain stunted corn and soybean crops and continues to punish livestock farmers, who’ve scrounged to feed cattle herds.
Cotton and peanut crops weren’t harmed, however. Farmers’ harvests of those drought-tolerant plants in 2016 were bigger than those of previous years.
According to a report this month by the National Agricultural Statistics Service, Alabama farmers harvested an average of 987 pounds of cotton per acre planted.
The Alabama Farmers Federation noted that this “would be the highest yield ever for the state” in a release on the numbers. Farmers also harvested 350 pounds more peanuts per acre in the dry year.
Calhoun County farmers don’t grow peanuts, but several grow cotton — Marshall Prickett among them.
The 82-year-old said his harvest this year was an average one, and came during the most severe drought he’s seen in a lifetime of farming.
That he harvested anything at all is thanks to the irrigation system he’s got, he said. Prickett said more government support should be available for such systems.
More than 7 inches of rain has fallen on the Anniston area since the start of the new year, weather service meteorologist Jason Holmes said Thursday. It’s this moisture that’s broken the grip of extreme drought, he said.
“It’s definitely helping out,” Holmes said. There’s “still a ways to go,” though. He and other meteorologists see no rain in the forecast through the middle of next week.
Staff Writer Zach Tyler: 256-235-3564. On Twitter @ZTyler_Star.