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Drought is insidious, stealthily spreading over the landscape when most of us who don’t make our livelihoods from agriculture just notice sunny, dry days in which we can enjoy the outdoors.
Of late, some of that outdoor enjoyment in Virginia has become infringed by wildfire smoke – of the local variety, not imported from Canada as it was early in the summer – and even some home evacuations and closed hiking trails with the state’s largest fire.
The Quaker Run Fire along the Blue Ridge in Madison County has jumped containment lines and expanded to burn over 3,000 acres, edging into Shenandoah National Park.
Many other smaller wildfires have broken out as well over mostly the western half of Virginia (Department of Forestry fire response map linked here), including several within the Southwest and Southside Virginia coverage area of Cardinal News. While last week’s Parrott River Road fire in Pulaski and Giles County was fully contained after burning more than 500 acres, a fire continuing early this week near Tuggles Gap on the Blue Ridge Parkway along the Patrick-Floyd county line has burned 850 acres. Gov. Glenn Youngkin, on Tuesday, declared a state of emergency to mobilize state resources to fight the wildfires.
While it is important to note that some increase in wildfires is typical in the fall with fallen leaves as fuel and the winds of occasional frontal systems helping spread them, what has become a widespread and increasingly severe drought is presently exacerbating the situation with these fires.
In last week’s U.S. Drought Monitor, almost 90% of Virginia was considered to be at least “abnormally dry” with almost half in moderate to severe drought. As has been the case for months, the Shenandoah Valley region flanking Interstate 81 from Lexington/Buena Vista to Winchester, as far east as the Blue Ridge, is in the worst drought, rated severe, but moderate drought now extends southward through Lynchburg and the eastern side of the Roanoke Valley, then westward about two counties deep along the Virginia-North Carolina border from Danville westward all the way to the southwest tip in Lee County – where as of Wednesday morning there were three active wildfires, one as large as 1,500 acres.
When the new U.S. Drought Monitor is released on Thursday, this will only grow in intensity and areal coverage, as there has been no widespread substantial precipitation in the past week.
Virginia last saw similarly widespread dryness for a brief spell in the fall of 2019, and before that, for a somewhat longer stretch in late 2017 into early 2018. In both cases, long-term rainy patterns that led to many locations setting records for heaviest annual precipitation on record in 2018 and 2020 quickly reversed the drought.
Which brings us to current expectations. With the ongoing El Niño – a stripe of warm water in the equatorial Pacific – and its frequent correlation with a juicy flow of wet storms across the southern third of the U.S., there is the expectation that this firehose will get turned on sooner or later and start bringing occasional soaking rainfall (and, perhaps, wintry precipitation with any cold air intrusions) to douse the current fire-starting dryness.
Forecast models have for several weeks picked up on some signals showing this may be starting to develop about two weeks ahead, but like a mirage, when two weeks pass it is seemingly another two weeks farther out. There are some signals we may slide into a wetter pattern toward the latter part of November. While a cold front may bring some showers for a little wetness by Friday, there is no indication of the kind of widespread soaking rain that would significantly ease or end the current drought through at least the middle of next week.
Dry fall weather, largely devoid of wet southern U.S. storms tapping Gulf of Mexico moisture, coastal storms and tropical systems (other than sorta-hybridish storm Ophelia that affected primarily the eastern half of our region), has caused the drought previously focused on the Shenandoah Valley to expand southward across the Southwest and Southside Virginia area covered by Cardinal News.
Roanoke experienced its eighth driest October in 111 years of weather records, receiving only 0.61 inch of rain, the least rain the Star City has seen in October since 0.43 in 2001, a year after only .02 fell in October 2000, Roanoke’s driest month at any time of year on record.
The Tri-Cities Airport in Tennessee – the official climate station for the metro area including Bristol, Virginia/Tennessee; Kingsport, Tennessee; and Johnson City, Tennessee – recorded its fourth driest September-October period on record, with just 1.81 inches of rain, the driest such two-month autumn period since 2000.
Or, perhaps, widespread drought over much of the South has expanded northeastward to meet the northern Virginia drought over us. Nearly 90% of Louisiana is in the top two tiers of drought, extreme and exceptional, as is nearly 80% of Mississippi. (It is possible these percentages will change, likely moving upward, if you click on these hyperlinks after the new U.S. Drought Monitor maps post on Thursday).
Meanwhile, California, that has been in the news for years suffering extraordinary drought, is now almost entirely free of it.
If this current drought makes it through winter and spring and we move into hot, dry weather next summer, that is when we would start to have serious concerns about water tables, river and lake levels and drinking water. Such was the case in the two waves of drought the state suffered in the 1999-2002 period, before the 2002-03 winter El Niño removed the state from its extreme drought in a couple of months.
Late fall and winter are the time when fully leafed trees aren’t umbrellas absorbing some rain before it reaches the soil, when plant roots aren’t pulling water out of the ground, and when carpets of fallen leaves enable runoff that can quickly recharge water tables and reservoirs.
Those same fallen leaves, when dry, are fuel for rapid spread of fires. Whether or not your county is in an official burn ban, please avoid any open outdoor burning until we can get meaningful rainfall.
Record fall freeze
For anywhere in Southwest and Southside Virginia that had any glimmer of growing season left, Thursday froze that notion until spring.
A sharp but quick outbreak of Arctic air brought some unseasonably cold mornings in the middle and latter part of last week, with some record lows set on Thursday morning only a few days after a summerlike prior weekend produced some record highs in the region.
We have already bounced back to warm temperatures again, with some near-80 readings possible by Friday, before a weekend cold front cools things back down, though not to the level of last week’s deep chill.
Burke’s Garden in Tazewell County fell to 11 degrees on Thursday morning, apparently the coldest recorded temperature in the Southwest and Southside Virginia area covered by Cardinal News.
The Virginia Tech-maintained weather sensor at Canaan Valley in eastern West Virginia plunged all the way to 2 degrees – the coldest temperature in the contiguous 48 states on Thursday morning.
Both Burke’s Garden and Canaan Valley are geographic “temperature sinks,” high-elevation valleys surrounded or nearly surrounded by higher terrain. Under conditions of clear skies and calm wind, cold air sinks to the surface and becomes trapped by the geography, resulting in temperatures several degrees colder than nearby locations at different elevations or outside the sink.
Lynchburg set new record low temperatures on two consecutive mornings – 25 on Wednesday beat out 26 from 1925 for the new Nov. 1 record low, while 21 on Thursday beat out 25 from 1976 for the new Nov. 2 record low. These record lows came only three and four days after the Hill City set a record daily high temperature, on Sunday, Oct. 29, at 86 degrees, topping the previous record 83 from 1927.
Danville also set a record low on Thursday – 23 degrees, beating out 25 from 1930 – the day after Wednesday’s low of 26 tied the Nov. 1 record set in 1926.
Tri-Cities Airport across the line from Bristol, Virginia, in Tennessee dropped to a record low of 21 degrees on Thursday, eclipsing 23 from 1954 and 1993. Tri-Cities also tied the Nov. 1 record low at 26, a mark previously reached in 1939 and 1993.
Other temperatures across the Southwest/Southside Virginia coverage area of Cardinal News on Thursday morning included:
17 at Copper Hill (Floyd County)
18 at Lexington
18 at Wytheville
19 at Galax
20 at Blacksburg
21 at Martinsville
22 at Abingdon
24 at Roanoke
26 at Appomattox
29 at Clarksville (Mecklenburg County)
Journalist Kevin Myatt has been writing about weather for 20 years. His weekly column, appearing on Wednesdays, is sponsored by Oakey’s, a family-run, locally-owned funeral home with locations throughout the Roanoke Valley.