Drought dangers spread beyond wildfires

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Adam Robison, Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal

Kyle Downs, with Downs Sod Farm in Baldwyn, sets an irrigation sprinkler to water sod at his farm last month.

 

Drought conditions sweeping across the state are changing the season’s usual routines, from camping to crop yields to construction projects.

According to the United States Drought Monitor, as of Nov. 3 the entire state was in drought conditions, with extreme drought areas indicated in red and severe drought in gold.

U.S. Department of Agriculture

According to the United States Drought Monitor, as of Nov. 3 the entire state was in drought conditions, with extreme drought areas indicated in red and severe drought in gold.

According to the United States Drought Monitor, as of Nov. 3 the northern- and southern-most parts of the state were in a moderate drought. Central and much of east Mississippi were in a state of extreme drought, the report states. The warm, dry weather is expected in Mississippi during the transition from summer to fall.

This differs from the same time in 2015, when only a small portion of the state’s center was listed as being in a moderate drought.

Because of drier conditions, most of the state has been placed on a burn ban with the exception of counties on or near the coast.

According to the Mississippi Forestry Commission, these 76 out of 82 counties remain under burn bans since the dry, cold front could increase the frequency and severity of wildfires.

Brighton Forester, a spokeswoman for the commission, said the drought this year has been more intense than in previous years, which affects residents who wish to build bonfires or light burn barrels to welcome the cooler weather, or those burning wood debris, leaves or old crops.

“Under the burn ban, anything that produces an ember and has an open flame is not allowed,” Forester said. “The wind can carry those embers up to a half mile away from the original fire and start another spot fire, which can then potentially start a wildfire and be hazardous to people’s lives.”

She said since Sept. 1—around the time the drought started—the commission responded to and suppressed 884 wildfires that burned 7,798 acres. During that time, 1,324 structures—including homes, commercial structures or outbuildings—were saved.

Forester said last year, it started raining toward the end of October, but this year she is expecting a longer period of drought without any “appreciable rain.”

Protecting power lines

Drier weather could also exacerbate the effects any ice or snow storms that hit Mississippi, which are not  as common as thunderstorms and tornadoes, but can wreak considerable damage when drought-weakened limbs fall on power lines.

Utilities are preparing for all contingencies.

Julie Boles, spokeswoman for the East Mississippi Electric Power Association, said the utility performs on-going maintenance of their rights-of-way to help protect its lines from fallen limbs or trees, keeping power flowing to its members even in the toughest conditions.

“Right-of-way maintenance is an important part of the service we provide our members for two key reasons: safety and reliability,” Boles said in an email. “It helps reduce possibility of contact with energized lines and ensures service reliability by reducing the possibility of a fallen limb or tree causing an outage.”

Jim Hopson, a spokesman for Tennessee Valley Authority, said TVA even has a detailed vegetation maintenance policy for its right-of-ways that protect its transmission lines.

“The issue of trees or limbs falling into power lines creates both safety and reliability challenges, which we work very hard to prevent,” Hopson said. “ … These policies have been highly effective.  TVA’s electric transmission system has a 99.999 percent reliability rating for the past 15 years.”

Mississippi Power spokesman Jeff Shepard also said the utility is prepared for the conditions that lie ahead, even as an ongoing drought plagues Mississippi trees, causing some to die off.

“Our system is built and maintained to provide reliable electric service even in the most extreme weather conditions,” Shepard said.

Meanwhile, Entergy Mississippi spokeswoman Mara Hartmann said the utility constantly trims trees and vegetation and removes dead or decaying trees in its service territory to minimize service disruptions due to storms knocking down trees or limbs into its lines.

Crop drop

Dry weather has been hard on the state's pecan harvest.

Dobbi/Flickr Commons

Dry weather has been hard on the state’s pecan harvest.

Drought conditions have also affected a part of the agriculture sector in Mississippi.

Max Draughn, president of the Mississippi Pecan Growers Association, said pecans in Mississippi were impacted by drought conditions.

“Pecan trees began the year with a good crop set in May,” Draughn said in an email. “However, the drought conditions caused many of the nuts to abort and fall from the tree before they were mature.  The worst result of the drought is the quality of the nuts that did remain on the tree.  The pecans did not properly fill out resulting in very poor quality kernels. In some nuts, the kernels are completely dried up and not edible.”

Draughn also said the drought has caused problems with the pecan harvest this year. The lack of rain has led to harvest being more than three weeks late. It also leads to good-quality pecans being priced higher due to a shortage of retail quality nuts.a

Rays of sunshine

Even though drought conditions have curtailed some recreational opportunities — the water level at Ross Barnett Reservoir has dropped so much several boat ramps have been closed — the absence of rain hasn’t been all bad.

Albert White, the Mississippi Department of Transportation’s engineer for the southwestern region, said that dry and warm weather has helped road construction crews by limiting delays.

“For our crews and contractors, it provides a chance to be very productive,” White said.

Specifically, the workers have been busy putting down asphalt and fixing culverts, in some cases getting ahead and other in others getting caught up from setbacks earlier in the year.

“In our area, we’re making up for lost time. We had flooding in March and August. It’s helping us get caught up, but there’s always things to fix and repair when you’re managing a large infrastructure.”

The dry spell could also help out in the winter. Roadways are designed with the region’s climate in mind, but when infrastructure deteriorates water can seep into cracks and crevices. Less moisture could mitigate some damage to older infrastructure, White said.

A worksite at The District at Eastover project in Jackson, which developers say has benefited from scarce rains.

The District Land Development

A worksite at The District at Eastover project in Jackson, which developers say has benefited from scarce rains.

Dry conditions have also been a boon for construction on The District at Eastover in Jackson, a mixed-use development whose plans call for restaurants, boutiques, residential lofts, office buildings and a hotel.

Breck Hines, a principal in District Land Development Company, said the lack of rain has allowed workers to make up for slowdowns during the rainy spring.

“The dry weather has helped us pick up some time in the schedule,” Hines said. “You’d always rather have warm and dry than cold and wet.”