CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Drought conditions are worsening in the Mountain State as state officials express concern about an increasing fire threat. The dry conditions prompted Gov. Jim Justice to declare a state of emergency Thursday for all 55 counties.
Justice’s declaration is based on a lack of rain, deficits numbering up to 5 inches in some areas and 7 inches lower than normal rainfall totals in others.
The declaration directs the implementation of an emergency operation plan along with standby status for the state’s Emergency Operations Center. The measure restricts the use of water for things like dust control and calls for the monitoring of other water sources.
The declaration also offers a few guidelines for residents when it comes to water usage.
The National Integrated Drought Information System released information Thursday that said nearly 19 percent of West Virginia is now considered under severe drought status.
Counties in the northern part of the state including the eastern panhandle are listed as abnormally dry while most of the southern part of the state is considered in moderate drought with a few exceptions.
The driest areas, considered in severe drought, include most of Kanawha County along with areas in southeastern and southwestern West Virginia.
State Agriculture Commissioner Kent Leonhardt said some areas could experience crop loss and water shortages.
“The WVDA is concerned for the well-being of West Virginia livestock, as well as potential crop loss. We are working with our partners to assimilate potential resources for farmers,” Leonhardt said. “We encourage those affected to check with your local FSA office for resources.”
A statewide outdoor burning ban remains in effect.
State Forester Barry Cook said there’s an average of 10 to 12 new fires a day. He said 118 fires have burned 1,046 acres in recent weeks with 90 percent of the blazes south of U.S. Route 50. Cook said approximately 25 percent of the fires have been started by debris burning. There have also been several arsons.
“Fifteen percent, 11 fires, have been intentionally set,” Cook said during an appearance Thursday on MetroNews “Talkline.”
— MetroNews (@WVMetroNews) October 3, 2019
Record-setting temperatures will exit the state Thursday night with cooler, more seasonal conditions expected going into the weekend. Cook said he’s concerned the change may bring more breezy conditions.
“If you get a steady push of wind it could make these fires spread pretty quickly,” he said.
The National Weather Service did issue a special weather statement for most of the state Thursday afternoon.
“Dry, breezy conditions will increase the chance for ignition and spread of wildland fires this afternoon into this evening,” the statement said.
Cook said the only large fire not contained Thursday was along 20-Mile Creek in Nicholas County.
Drought economic impact
Summersville Mayor Robert Shaffer told MetroNews he had been hoping to see significant amounts of rainfall in the weeks leading up to the first in a series of water releases from the from Summersville Lake marking the official opening of Gauley Rafting Season.
“It kind of hits us a little extra hard,” he said. “A lot of times, everybody’s got dreary faces when it’s raining and we’re having a soggy season, and with the City of Summersville, it’s not always a negative thing because, with the fact that we are the owners of the (hydroelectric) plant, all that precipitation makes it’s way into the lake and then, of course, out through the hydro plant, and we make some good, clean, green energy. So, yes, things are little slow for us, right now.”
Shafer said they have to make due without the rain.
“Typically, at this point in time, when we have no rainfall, it’s about the augmentation of the river. So, they let out what they have, and there has to be a certain volume let out to go through our plant to rotate the turbines,” Shafer explained.
Water releases overseen by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will continue until the third weekend of the month.
MetroNews Reporter Pete Davis contributed to this story.