Torrid Heat Creates Tinderbox Conditions in Tennessee


Tennessee is seeing dry conditions that normally don’t develop until late summer and the wildfire danger is increasing.

State Forestry Division officials report an increase in the number of fire calls – both those the state responds to and those that volunteer fire departments report to the agency.

“The low relative humidity and the high temperatures have caused vegetation to really dry out, both grasses in the open areas and leaf litter on the forest floor, creating an elevated wildfire threat,” said Tim Phelps, information forester for the agency.

“It’s easier to start, easier to spread and more difficult to contain,” he said.

The Drought Assessment Monitor maintained by the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Agency shows almost all of Tennessee is under some degree of stress from lack of rainfall. Only Polk and Monroe counties in extreme southeastern Tennessee reported adequate moisture.

High temperatures – many Tennessee locations broke heat records last week – have contributed to drying, and rainfall has been below normal.

The National Weather Service office in Nashville noted 96 percent of Tennessee is at least abnormally dry, 76 percent has at least moderate drought, 26 percent if experiencing severe drought and 5 percent has extreme drought.

The most pronounced drought conditions are in the Reelfoot Lake region of northwestern Tennessee, which is classified as extreme drought. Rainfall at Samburg is off 11.93 inches for the year to date.

In Memphis, there is a 12.95-inch rainfall deficit. To date, 14.70 inches have fallen in the city.

The NWS office in Nashville reports rainfall Jan. 1-June 28 was 18.18 inches _ 6.88 inches below normal.

Forecasters say the drought conditions have spread rapidly, however, in recent weeks as rainfall remained sparse and temperatures climbed. Only the eastern Tennessee River Valley from Chattanooga up to Knoxville and beyond, as well as the Smoky Mountains, remained merely abnormally dry.

Hornbeak lies in the driest part of the state, and Hornbeak Volunteer Fire Department Chief Bob Reavis is watching the grass dry out, despite a little bit of local rainfall recently.

“We usually get some rain around the Fourth of July, but not this year,” Reavis said.

With Independence Day approaching, fire officials are nervous about fireworks touching off wildfires.

Other usual causes include tossed cigarette butts, sparks from farm equipment, escaped debris from burns and – sometimes – arson.

“Very few are the result of the course of nature,” Reavis said.

The Hornbeak department usually answers about one call per week. Many more create a strain on the two dozen volunteers who are pulled away from their jobs or personal time to fight fires.

Phelps noted the wildfires that have been burning for weeks in Colorado and Utah and said Tennessee residents need to be cautious and avoid open burning.

“This trend looks like it’s going to continue,” Phelps said. “We want people to be careful out there out there with fire.”

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