Fire Danger

By: Melissa Reynolds
By: Melissa Reynolds

The moisture levels in plants are now 30% lower than this time two years ago. That makes a forest more vulnerable to fire, but officials say they're prepared.

Not having enough moisture can lead to big problems.

"If we get a fire these fuels will carry a fire pretty rapidly, it puts us on a higher level of concern," Curtis Waggy says.

The U.S. Forest Service has a number of ways to assess the situation, there's seven weather stations in the area that test daily for everything from the temperature to the drought and burning index.

"These sticks here measure the content of the dead fuel," Waggy says.

Waggy also tests the most dangerous fuel, or plants by breaking off a branch.

"We weigh them first on scales-write the weight down put em in the oven and we set the oven for 100 degrees-turn it on and cook em overnight," Waggy says.

These plants are straight from the oven...they're weighed and the numbers are plugged into a formula to get the moisture level.

"The fuel moistures we tested last month are where they should be in February in their dormant stage, we know we can expect more erratic fire behavior when we do get a wildfire," Waggy says.

The forest is pretty green, now, but don't let it fool you, Waggy says we're not out of the woods yet, even though it rained earlier this week.

"It's short lived-it'll dry off in a few days depending on what kind of temperatures we get and wind and in a week or so the danger will be there to get wildfires," Waggy says.

You may remember about this time last year, the state was under a burning ban. It's still very dry, but if we continue to get rain every few days we could avoid the ban.

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Virginia Drought Impact

Impact on Public Water Systems

  • Mandatory water restrictions are in place in most of the Commonwealth due to Executive Order #33. Only southwest Virginia, parts of northern Virginia and the Eastern Shore are not included in the order.

  • Reservoir and stream levels that support public water supplies have improved slightly since late August. The town of Orange is anticipating a water shortage emergency within two weeks. The town has made emergency plans to pipe water about 20 miles from a location near Culpeper using a surface laid pipeline.

  • The Albemarle/Charlottesville and Portsmouth public water supply reservoirs are approaching 50 percent capacity.

  • Ground water-based public water supplies in Amherst, Appomattox, Augusta, Botetourt, Caroline, Clarke, Fluvanna, Fauquier, Loudoun, Nottoway, Shenandoah and Warren counties have reported dropping ground water levels or reduced yields.

  • Impact on Surface and Ground Water

    • Streamflows in the Shenandoah, Potomac, James and Roanoke River Basins are generally below the normal range of flow observed during September but above monthly minimum levels.

    • Streamflows in the Chowan, Kanawha, Big Sandy and Tennessee River Basin are in the normal range of flow. However, the low levels of ground water storage will speed the decline in these streamflows without additional precipitation.

    • Ground water levels continue to decline. Levels of large reservoirs such as Smith Mountain Lake, Kerr Reservoir and Philpott Reservoir continue to decline despite variances to required minimum discharges. Lake Moomaw is currently operating under a reduced release that is supplying less than one half of the flow measured in the James River near Richmond. Streamflows over the majority of the Commonwealth are well below levels expected in August. Record minimum flows for the period are expected at streamgauges in the Shenandoah, Rappahannock, York, James and Chowan River basins.

    • Virginia Department of Health issued over 2,900 private well replacement permits for private water supply wells that have failed since July 1. Average water conservation savings at large public water supplies of six to 12 percent have been reported since the implementation of the Governor's Executive Order #33 on Aug. 30.

    • The Department of Environmental Quality met with large users on the Roanoke River on Sept. 19 to begin discussions regarding allocating the limited flow in this river.

    Impact on Agriculture

    • Scattered rainfall during the last month did little to improve the agricultural conditions across the state. Without significant sustained rainfall soon, the agricultural situation in Virginia will continue to deteriorate creating major problems for farmers over most of the state. The lack of subsoil moisture may prevent the planting of many fall crops.

    • The number of federal drought disaster designation requests submitted to Gov. Mark Warner more than doubled between August and September, from 30 to 73. The requests come from 60 separate counties, with 13 submitting a second request for additional damages experienced since their original submissions.

    • The U.S. Secretary of Agriculture has approved primary disaster designation for 10 of the localities (Bedford, Brunswick, Buckingham, Cumberland, Fluvanna, Goochland, Louisa, Orange, Prince Edward and Rockbridge counties) and denied disaster designation for six localities (Augusta, Bland, Nelson, Page, Rockingham and Wythe counties) whose loss of production did not meet the 30% federal requirement.

    • Thirty-eight contiguous counties were also approved for federal assistance and eight localities that received primary designation have also received secondary designation.
      The Governor has requested federal designation for 40 other localities whose approval is still pending. Damage assessment reports (DAR) are pending from USDA for 17 localities (Albemarle, Alleghany, Amelia, Amherst, Campbell (2nd request), Charlotte, Chesterfield, Culpeper, Dinwiddie, Essex, Fauquier, Isle of Wight, Louisa (2nd request) Prince George, Pulaski, Scott and Warren counties).

    Impact on the Environment

    • Light rainfall during September has helped to minimize short-term wildfire activity across the state. In spite of the much-needed rain, drought indices remain higher than normal throughout the Commonwealth and statewide conditions are again favorable for increased and extended wildfire activity.

    • The Department of Forestry has cancelled all prescribed burning projects in support of the Governor's executive order and is urging other concerns to follow suit.

    • Due to significant drops in stream and lake levels throughout most of the state, access at boat ramps and fishing piers is increasingly limited and recreational opportunities are reduced. Of the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries' 225 public boat access sites, 131 still support normal launching, 71 report low water but may be used, 19 report no water on ramp but hand launching of small boats is possible and four are closed for repairs.

    • There has been some increased fish mortality at one Department of Game and Inland Fisheries' trout hatchery and fish stress levels have increased at all hatcheries. Flows at trout rearing facilities have decreased by 20 to 40 percent in the past eight weeks. Though there have been no drought-related fish kills reported in public waters, private pond owners have reported very low levels and some ponds have dried up resulting in loss of fish.


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