As worsening drought conditions afflict Central Virginia and a fire burns in national forest lands in Bedford County, two local counties have joined 30 others across the state that have banned open fires.
Nelson and Louisa counties officially have banned outdoor burning as portions of the counties were reclassified from abnormally dry to suffering a moderate drought.
“The extremely dry conditions are creating a substantial threat of fire, and it is appropriate to ban open-air burning,” Nelson’s Board of Supervisors wrote in an Oct. 8 ordinance banning burning.
Nelson County’s ban means that fires cannot be lit in streets, alleys and other public places or on private property. Violations are misdemeanors and the ordinance expires in 60 days.
Louisa County led local jurisdictions in declaring a burning ban, citing the ongoing drought creating dry conditions in both soil and vegetation.
“Due to worsening drought conditions in the region, the County of Louisa is prohibiting open-air burning until further notice,” county officials announced in a formal statement Oct. 4. “This prohibition applies to the burning of brush, leaves, grass, trash, debris or any other flammable material, as well as the ignition or maintenance of any open fire within the county. The prohibition does not apply to charcoal, gas or liquid-fired grills.”
“We take citizen safety and the protection of property very seriously,” Keith Greene, chief of Louisa’s fire and emergency services, said in a statement. “Responsible practices are critical to ensuring both.”
Parts of adjacent Fluvanna County are in a moderate drought.
“We haven’t enacted a burn ban yet, but in talking with forestry officials and fire officials, they’ve indicated it may be something we need to consider soon,” said Debbie Smith, Fluvanna’s emergency management coordinator.
Madison County officials said they have not banned fires yet, but will consider such a measure if conditions worsen.
“At this point, there has been no burn ban although conditions are extremely dry,” said Brian Gordon, deputy emergency manager for Madison. “We’ve been in talks with the Department of Forestry and Shenandoah National Park but nothing is being talked about as far as a ban at this point.”
Much of Southwest Virginia and counties bordering North Carolina have banned fires, according to the Virginia Department of Forestry. Most of those counties are officially listed as suffering moderate drought conditions with some areas in severe drought.
According to the National Weather Service, the drought conditions are considered a “flash drought” brought on by a recent rain lack and late-season heat.
“This essentially means that the short-term dryness and heat quickly overcame the long-term record wetness we experienced between April 2018 and the early summer of 2019,” meteorologists wrote in an Oct. 8 drought update. “Although the heat has ended, significant rain has not yet been observed, so drought conditions persist.”
Meteorologists said many locations throughout the region have seen above-normal temperatures every month since April.
“Most areas saw less than an inch of rain in the month of September and in some places that all fell at once,” they wrote. “The dry weather is impacting ground moisture, river and stream levels and vegetation. Groundwater levels have, so far, been unaffected.”
The weather service expects the dry conditions to ease by November.
“Unfortunately, substantial relief to the drought conditions is not expected in the next 10 days,” the statement said. “Although the unseasonably hot conditions have ended, little or no rainfall is expected through mid-October.”
Meanwhile, other areas of Central Virginia have seen drought conditions worsen.
Western Buckingham County is in a a severe drought and the majority of the county is in a moderate drought, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Drought Mitigation Center.
Amherst County, which borders Nelson County, is in a moderate drought and has instituted a fire ban.
Northern Albemarle County and Greene, Madison and Orange counties are listed as abnormally dry, which is less severe than moderate drought, according to the center.
U.S. Forest Service crews spent nearly a week fighting a forest fire in Bedford County in rough terrain between Glasgow and Big Island. The fire, which was reported Oct. 4, is still being fought.
“Due to the steep and rocky terrain where the Cliff Fire is burning, suppressing the fire is difficult,” federal fire officials said.