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Columbus’ extreme drought’s killing trees, boosting fire danger

Associated Press

The topsoil is dry as talcum powder, the subsoil little more than dust. Trees are dying; ponds are drying; and the wildfire risk is as extreme as the worsening drought.

Come Monday, Columbus had gone 36 days without rain, last measuring .92 of an inch on Oct. 16, said Bob Jeswald, chief meteorologist for WRBL-TV.

The latest long, dry stretch came on the heels of another: The last rain before that was 21 days earlier, on Sept. 25.

The city for the year is now more than a foot below average for rainfall, though in January 2016 it had a surplus of 6 to 7 inches above normal, Jeswald said.

Only in the past few days has the weather finally cooled. Before that, temperatures were above average. Columbus had the eighth warmest October on record, according to the National Weather Service.

The average high last month was 70.8 degrees, 4.3 degrees above the normal 66.5, the weather service said. The record was 73.7 degrees back in 1984.

The .92 inches of rain Columbus got Oct. 16 left it 2.58 inches below normal for the month. The record was zero rain back in October 1963.

An extreme moisture deficit feeds on itself, Jeswald said: Less moisture in the soil and less standing water in lakes and ponds means less water to evaporate to form clouds, and fewer clouds to drop rain.

The jet stream that normally brings storms across the Southeast has weakened and shifted to the north, leaving a stubborn high-pressure system gripping the region, maintaining current conditions.

Current conditions are killing trees and other plants.

Dying trees

City arborist Scott Jones said large trees are dying and saplings just planted are suffering, having not taken root yet. The city government can afford to water new plantings only for a year, he said: After that, they’re on their own.

“We’re going to see a lot more effect next year, when things start to green up in the spring,” he said. A severe drought can initiate a cycle of gradual decline that takes two or three years to play out.

Pine trees that have deep tap roots abruptly have turned brown, and hardwoods already nearing their life expectancy are accelerating toward their demise.

The problems are not concentrated in particular spots, he said. Having gone weeks without significant rainfall, “pretty much everything’s in distress,” he said.

So are residents who don’t want to lose their trees, he said: “We’ve had a lot of people call in.” Some bought their homes because of the trees that shade and beautify their yards, and they want to know what they can do to save those trees.

He recommends they water trees with a soaker hose, a sprinkler or a garden hose with its flow cut to a trickle. Typically trees have surface roots within the drip line of their canopies and can collect moisture in that area, if it soaks in.

So far Columbus is under no mandatory water use restrictions. The Georgia Environmental Protection Division has it under what’s called “Drought Advisory Level 1,” which recommends voluntary water conservation.

According to the Columbus Water Works, that level allows “daily watering for purposes of planting, growing, managing, or maintaining ground cover, trees, shrubs, or other plants only between the hours of 4 p.m. and 10 a.m.”

The U.S. Department of Agriculture on Nov. 13 reported that topsoil moisture was “short to very short” across 92 percent of Alabama and 90 percent of Georgia. Subsoil moisture was in the same condition over 90 percent of Alabama and 80 percent of Georgia, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.

The U.S. Drought Monitor map has Muscogee County currently in “extreme drought,” just one level below the worst designation of “exceptional drought” and right on the threshold, geographically, as Harris and Troup counties just to the north are in exceptional drought.

These conditions are not just dry, but dangerous, because of the wildfire risk.

Burn bans

Columbus Fire Marshal Ricky Shores compares the volatility of dry brush and dead trees to ground soaked in gasoline: Drop a lit match, and the flames can spread as if fumes ignited.

He issued a burn ban for Muscogee County on Saturday, prohibiting any outdoor fires not contained in a chimney or outdoor masonry fireplace. Cooking on grills is allowed, but users should be cautious and prepared to extinguish any sparks. Charcoal should be thoroughly doused before it’s discarded.

Columbus normally allows outdoor burning by permit only, but few residents abide by the law, Shores said. They burn trash, yard debris or construction waste without getting permits.

“That goes on every day,” he said. “It’s not supposed to.”

It’s unlikely to go unnoticed under these conditions, he said: “We’re about to have our eyes opened as to how pervasive these fires can be.”

Any outdoor burning now threatens not just the property it’s on, but all the land around it, including homes and businesses. Anyone who witnesses it needs to recognize the danger and call 911, he said.

Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley issued a drought emergency declaration banning outdoor burning on Oct. 12. It covers 46 counties in north and central Alabama, including Russell, Lee, Chambers, Macon and Randolph.

The Alabama Forestry Commission advises those using outdoor grills for cooking to remove any combustible material within 10 feet of the grill and have a fire extinguisher or water hose available to extinguish any sparks. The burn ban also prohibits using candles and Tiki torches, it says.

Violators face a fine of $250 to $500 and up to six months in jail.