As the last river finally falls below major flood stage near the coast, a rapidly worsening drought is killing crops and causing hard-to-fight wildfires in rugged terrain in western North Carolina and South Carolina.
The dry side of the unusual split was the focus of a South Carolina Drought Response Committee meeting Wednesday, where drought-level declarations were made that could eventually enable mandatory water restrictions if necessary.
“In Spartanburg County, all of the reservoirs are dropping daily. Are we at a critical stage? No,” said drought committee member Brad Powers. “But if it continues as it is, it is going to get bad in a hurry. Not just for us, but for everyone.”
A few minutes later, Ed Saxton of the Beaufort-Jasper Water and Sewer Authority spoke up. His area about 200 miles south of Spartanburg saw 15 inches of rain from Matthew in early October.
“We’re still seeing water in places we’ve never seen it before,” he said.
The story is much the same in North Carolina: more than a foot of rain in the east, but weeks without rain in the western mountains.
The floods were caused by rains from Hurricane Matthew and other tropical systems. The Waccamaw River near Conway is forecast to finally fall below major flood stage after nearly two weeks at that level.
North Myrtle Beach has seen nearly 28 inches of rain since Sept. 1, according to the National Weather Service.
But those rains haven’t reached the west. Greenville had 1.43 inches of rain since Sept. 1 with similar totals in the North Carolina mountains.
The drought response committee in South Carolina raised the level of drought to severe in Anderson, Oconee and Pickens counties, and moderate in 11 other counties to the east and south.
The U.S. Drought Monitor has three far western North Carolina counties in extreme drought and nine others in severe drought.
Although officials in both South Carolina and North Carolina have said the situation isn’t dire enough yet for mandatory water restrictions, the level of drought in the worst hit areas will allow them if needed.
Firefighters in North Carolina are already fighting several blazes in rugged mountain terrain.
About 70 firefighters are near Sylva, North Carolina, making sure a 375-acre fire doesn’t spread to homes along Dicks Creek. Another fire is burning in the Linville Gorge, according to the U.S. Forest Service.
Usually, fall fires involve small debris that’s easier to contain, like fallen leaves and twigs. But a dry summer has left larger branches and dead trees drier than they have been in a decade or more, said Steve Little, assistant fire management officer for the forest service.
“We’re planning for this to last through November or early December,” Little said. “It’s going to take a prolonged rain event to slow this down.”
Fires are a normal part of the life cycle in the mountain forests. But increasing development is bringing more homes into the wilderness, requiring firefighters to take more steps to protect those properties.
The drought is hurting crops as they come to harvest and things that haven’t even been planted yet.
Hardest hit so far are cattle and livestock ranchers, who have had to turn to winter hay to feed their animals in early fall because the grass dried up, according to a U.S. Department of Agriculture crop report.
Some soybeans and peanuts are still in the ground, and those farmers are hoping the dry weather doesn’t hurt them too badly.
Farmers also aren’t too sure about the future: Usually, about a quarter of the winter wheat crop has been planted by now; this year, less than 5 percent is in the ground.
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