Drought impact still being felt

BY SUSAN KIM | Washington | November 23, 1999


News of summer's severe drought in the mid-Atlantic states may have left the headlines but continued dry weather

continues to inflict pain on the region.

Dry conditions have increased the risk of wildfires throughout the mid-Atlantic and exacerbated fires already burning in

North Carolina and Virginia. In North Carolina, a wildfire was burning five miles from the community of Robbinsville,

though firefighters were able to contain it over the weekend.

Adding continuing concern to farmers and conservation officials, most mid-Atlantic states have had less than 1/4 inch of rain

so far this month.

Though rainfall totals still stand a couple of inches higher than average in the Eastern part of the region, most rain was from

this season's hurricanes, particularly Hurricane Floyd, and brought the totals above normal even amid dry conditions.

The Family Farm Drought Response Coalition, an ecumenical group of response organizations networked with local

churches, continues to try to meet the critical needs of farmers in the mid-Atlantic states. Hundreds of farmers are facing the

winter with a severe hay shortage, mounting equipment bills, overbearing anxiety about simple survival, and now the

growing risk of wildfires.

The coalition has been coordinating hay lifts, distributing donated hay for free or for a reduced cost. The coalition reports that

requests for hay are coming from Kentucky, Ohio, West Virginia, Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, and Pennsylvania.

This year has also been a particularly harmful year for fires in the western U.S., especially in Happy Valley and Jones Valley,

Calif., where some 300 homes were completely burned in wildfires last month.

"People also lost cars, outbuildings, fences, farm property," said Dick Eskes, a Church World Service (CWS) disaster resource

facilitator who helped to coordinate an interfaith response in the hard-hit areas.

Although the Small Business Administration has been offering low-interest loans to fire survivors, and the Federal

Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is helping displaced people foot the cost of rental housing, FEMA did not declare

the area a federal disaster. "I don't know how the churches will cover this," said Eskes.

The Shasta County Fire Interfaith Relief Effort (SCFIRE) has been overseeing response to the fires, and trained volunteers

from the Christian Reformed World Relief Committee have overseen interviews with hundreds of survivors.

As the rain-starved east coast looks on, fire cleanup out west is being challenged by wet weather. "The weather is coming in

on us," said Skip Tyler, director of SCFIRE. "Rain will make it tough for cleanup."

Apathy, Tyler added, is another challenge, especially since news of the fires' damage has left the headlines. The needs are still

urgent, he said. "People are saying 'if I don't have assistance now, I'm going to be sleeping in the street tomorrow,' " he said.

The state's emergency management officials also plan to hold a summit with tribal leaders to plan more effective fire

evacuations. Of five tribes hit this year by wildfires, only one had an emergency response plan -- "and that plan was to get

out," said Lorna Lynn Jarrett, a CWS disaster response specialist.

High to extreme risks of fire are being reported in areas such as Kansas, where wildfires don't usually affect people. "We have

been very, very dry," said Cherri Baer, a CWS disaster resource consultant. "Tonight's chance of 50% rain is as high as we've

gotten for awhile."

Worse-than-normal fires have caused forecasters and residents alike to consider global warming as a cause. A team of

California scientists released a report earlier this month indicating that global warming will bring more frequent major

storms and less reliable water supplies to California. In the mid-Atlantic states, many environmental groups warn that the

droughts such as this summer's will get even worse because of global warming.

Although the effects of global warming are difficult to pinpoint, climate scientists report that the average temperature of the

earth's lower atmosphere has increased nearly one degree over the past century.

Steve Brown, manager of the Reno office of the National Weather Service, said that one degree is not very much of a

departure from average. "The average temperature of the world has come up a fraction of a degree or one degree," he said.

"But if you look back in history there has been cooling and warming."

But scientists warn that a rise of less than one degree can increase both the frequency and intensity of disaster. Extended

droughts, flooding in New York subways, parts of Brooklyn under water, lack of fish in the Pacific Ocean, increased storm

coastal storm damage, are just some of the disasters associated with global warming.

Forecasters are also blaming the weather phenomenon La Nina for this year's abnormal spate of fire and other disasters. And

when fire season finally ends, risk for avalanches could grow, since forecasters are predicting that La Nina will bring

increased snowfall to the midwest and western U.S.

"It seems that most folks are either anxiously awaiting our predicted La Nina snowfalls for 1999-2000 or they are hoping

against all odds that we have clear weather into early December," said Janet Kellam, lead forecaster for the Sun Valley

Avalanche Center.

Though avalanche reports are mostly used by skiers, mountain climbers or other winter sports people, severe avalanches can

certainly affect residential areas, said Kellam. "In a number of winter towns, people build houses where they shouldn't," she

said.


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