Abnormally dry conditions have culminated in a recent uptick of forest fire activity in northeast Alabama, according to an Alabama Forestry Commission staffer, but rain in the forecast might help dampen that vegetation.
Steven Jones, a forestry management specialist who works at the commission’s Calhoun County office, said Friday that fire activity has picked up in the last two weeks in Calhoun, Cherokee and Cleburne counties, with four or five blazes in Calhoun in the last week. One fire last weekend burned on 40 acres of privately owned land, he said.
“Anytime it dries out like this, especially with hot temperatures, it’s usually with an increase in fires,” Jones said.
Hot temperatures have been in high supply the last few weeks. Last week the National Weather Service issued a two-day heat advisory on Monday and Tuesday for most of the state, with the heat index — which measures the effect of humidity and temperature together — reaching as high as 110 degrees.
Much of the west side of Alabama is in some kind of drought condition, according to a map released Thursday, available on the U.S. Drought Monitor website. Much of Calhoun, Cleburne and St. Clair counties are covered in an “abnormally dry” zone, while all of Clay and Randolph counties are included in that category. Talladega County is also entirely within a drought zone, though its southwestern corner is also within a “moderate drought” zone.
But the weather service forecasts rain this weekend, with chances of showers at 70 percent Saturday and 80 percent Sunday, according to its website. The odds of rain should decrease going into next week, according to Jason Holmes, a meteorologist at the service’s Calera station, reaching 40 percent by Wednesday and 20 percent by Thursday.
The problem is that the storm system doesn’t look like it will offer sustained, consistent rain.
“We have increased chances, but not everybody will see it,” Holmes said, noting that scattered showers were likely. “It will provide some relief but not the relief that we’re looking for.”
In spite of the dry conditions, Calhoun County as a whole is ahead on its annual rainfall, at 37.71 inches since January, 3.69 inches above the norm, Holmes said. But that extra rain was accumulated earlier in the year, which doesn’t help plants right now.
“Vegetation has a shorter memory, if you will, and is reacting to what’s happened for the last month,” Holmes said.
The area has only accumulated 1.1 inches of rain so far this month, Holmes said, .58 inches less than normal in August.
Drought conditions can introduce a number of hazards. The most apparent is fire; Jones said the recent fires in the county were probably caused by cigarette butts carelessly flicked from cars, campfires left unattended and burn piles of trash or leaves that get caught up by strong wind.
Once fires start, Jones and backup from volunteer fire departments will clear off firebreaks — paths cut by bulldozer down to the dirt, removing fuel for fires — to contain the blaze behind a border.
Budget cutbacks over the last five or six years have resulted in short staffing for many Alabama counties, Jones said. Calhoun County should be staffed with three employees, he said, but it’s just him right now, and has been for some time. He said the reduction in force has resulted in an increase in response time to fires, something he tries to let people know often.
Drought can also pose less apparent threats to vegetation, which can be weakened by the lack of water. In turn, they become easier targets for pests, Holmes said, like pine beetles, which thrive in weakened trees, according to the Forestry Commission’s website. Holmes said a massive drought in 2007 opened the way for the creatures to cause lasting damage.
“Even today we have several areas of woodland across the state that still have damage from 2007,” he said, “because the trees were weakened by drought and invasive species were able to come in.”
Holmes said that any rain is welcome, even if it’s not the consistent rain Alabama needs.
“Hopefully we won’t have to get to the point we’ve gotten to before where we have to be concerned about water levels for usage and recreation,” he said.