This Georgia drought bears the mark of fire


More than 35,000 acres of North Georgia mountains are burning with no end in sight to the dangerous fires that have forced people from their homes, sent hundreds to hospitals and cast an acrid pall of smoke over metro Atlanta.

The Rock Mountain and Rough Ridge fires leave little doubt that Georgia’s “exceptional” drought — the third in a decade — is taking a heavy toll. Many climatologists and meteorologists say get used to it: A warming climate translates into higher Southern temperatures and less rain.

Gov. Nathan Deal last week ratcheted up the drought declaration ordering residents of 52 North Georgia counties, including most of metro Atlanta, to refrain from watering their lawns except for twice weekly. Not since the devastating drought of 2007-09, when Lake Lanier resembled a ringed and muddy bathtub, have such tough watering restrictions been put in place.

No drought comes at a good time; this one, though, is most inopportune. Georgia and Florida are waging legal battle in a Maine courtroom over an equitable sharing of the Chattahoochee River — metro Atlanta’s municipal and economic lifeblood.

The stakes are enormous. If Georgia loses, less water could be available for Atlanta’s growth, and the development brakes would be slammed on a region expected to nearly double in size to 10 million people by 2050. Or Deal and other state and local officials would need to find billions of dollars to drought-proof the region via new reservoirs, more stringent conservation measures or water works upgrades.

Even if Georgia emerges unscathed from its latest legal skirmish with Florida, a warming climate would likely require many of the same expensive remedies to combat drought.

Mother Nature, though, is fickle. While North America is entering a La Nina weather phase with hotter Southern temps and less rain, there’s no guarantee it will last deep into 2017 or beyond. A changing climate may not radically alter North Georgia’s weather in the future.

“Atlanta is in the midst of major climate-switch changes in its drought,” said Kevin Scasny, a meteorologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Dunwoody, who predicted this year’s bad fire season. “By the middle of next year, we should see a little more rain activity. We should be cooling again after this year.”

500 wildfires since October

Tate City, with a few dozen homes scattered along the Tallulah River, is surrounded by 4,000-foot peaks that rise even higher just up the dirt road in North Carolina. The southern Appalachians are some of the most beautiful, biologically diverse and, typically, wet mountains in North America.

The abundantly green hillsides and hollows receive an average of 87 inches of rain each year. It’s known as a temperate rain forest or “water tower” for the Southeast and serves as the headwaters for many streams, including the Chattahoochee River that slakes Atlanta’s thirst.

A wildfire, though, crept down Pot Gap Ridge last week, turning the hillside into cinder and threatening Eric Willey’s home.

“I have never before seen a drought of this intensity,” he said as a helicopter scooped water from a nearby pond to dump a half-mile away on the Rock Mountain fire.

The wildfires are the most tangible sign so far of this drought’s grip on Georgia. Typically, Georgia fights 30 wildfires a year in the Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest, said Betty Jewett, the forest’s supervisor. This year, since October, 500 wildfires have spread across the region.

A very wet winter and early spring gave way to … zilch. September and October were the driest two-month period ever recorded at the Coweeta Hydrologic Laboratory rain gauge in nearby Otto, N.C. The U.S. Geological Service reports that stream gauges in northwest Georgia recently recorded the lowest 28-day average flow in the past 30 years.

“There is an extreme drought going on right now,” Phil Manuel, another meteorologist with the National Weather Service, said after touring the fire lines. “That, combined with warmer temperatures for longer periods of time, opens it up for more fires and longer fire seasons.”

This past summer was Georgia’s second-hottest ever. Gainesville, on the edge of Lake Lanier, has suffered a nearly 20-inch deficit of rainfall. Beef farmers across North Georgia have culled herds. Reservoir levels keep dropping. High schools can no longer hold carwash fundraisers.

The drought’s cost, to human health and the state’s economy, keeps adding up. Hospitals from Atlanta, Athens, Dalton and Gainesville have seen big jumps — as much as 50 percent — in emergency room vists for asthma and other respiratory illnesses.

Cattle and hay farmers in more than 60 North Georgia counties are thinning herds, driving hundreds of miles to buy hay and applying for federal disaster assistance. As the drought spreads, the agricultural pain will follow. Farmers are holding off on planting winter crops, uncertain whether the rains will come. And, with streams and wells running dry, next spring’s plantings also look dicey.

Drought and heat trigger other fire-inducing phenomena. As temperatures warm, evaporation increases. Moisture is sucked from the soil, plants, trees and dead vegetation into the atmosphere.

“Every type of fuel is available here. The rhododendron, the duff and the large trees are usually pretty wet,” said Chad Cullum, a Montana firefighter whose crew battled flames along a bend in a road outside of Clayton. “But not here. So that’s what’s allowing new embers to jump across the fire line. It just continues to spread.”

Drought-proof plan ‘fell apart’

Deal had never seen wildfires like this before in Georgia. In addition to restricting outdoor watering to two days a week, the governor Thursday also prohibited North Georgians from washing streets, sidewalks and cars (except at commercial carwashes). He also encouraged 58 counties across Middle Georgia to conserve water.

The governor said he will “pray for rain across the state.” His predecessor, Sonny Perdue, also beseeched a higher power to send some water Georgia’s way. Ultimately, his prayers were answered. Georgia, though, had withstood two withering droughts in a five-year period.

Wildfires weren’t the climactic signature of the droughts of 2007-09 and 2011-12. Lake Lanier, the reservoir above Atlanta that supplies water to 3 million people, was the poster child for the first drought. Lake levels dipped 20 feet by December 2007, with boaters maneuvering around the tops of long-submerged trees and buildings. The region’s tourist industry took a $90 million hit.

Perdue had, by then, declared a state of emergency for the northern third of the state. Virtually all outdoor watering was banned. Restaurants only served water at a customer’s request. Shorter showers were encouraged. At one point, metro Atlanta had less than 90 days of water supply left.

The next drought didn’t really affect Atlanta; it hammered South Georgia, though. Crops withered and billions of dollars of cotton, peanuts and corn shriveled. Farm ponds disappeared. The Flint River hit historic lows. Wells went dry.

Perdue and Deal tried to drought-proof Georgia. They proposed a handful of reservoirs encircling Atlanta costing hundreds of millions of dollars. Perdue signed the Water Stewardship Act of 2010, which mandated year-round watering restrictions and low-flow toilets for new construction.

After the second drought, Deal’s administration instituted a moratorium on new well-drilling permits across southwest Georgia in 2012.

The legislative efforts proved a mixed bag. Metro Atlanta, for example, reduced its daily per-capita consumption by one-third between 2000 and 2013. Critics, though, say utilities, nurseries and farmers were spared any water-saving pain.

Moratorium notwithstanding, farmers received an additional 237 permits to dig wells into deeper aquifers. And only a couple of reservoirs were built.

“The state’s plans to drought-proof the region fell apart,” said Chris Manganiello, the water policy director for the Chattahoochee Riverkeeper. “A lot of the reservoirs relied upon unrealistic population projections, so they never demonstrated a demand for water in the future. And, while conservation and efficiency have worked to a degree, we certainly can be more aggressive moving forward.”

Perdue’s drought-protection plan was also an attempt to appease Florida and Alabama, which have sued Georgia nearly nonstop the past three decades seeking a greater share of water from the Chattahoochee, Flint and aquifers. After an appeals court ruled that metro Atlanta could continue to use Lake Lanier as its main watering hole, Florida sued in 2013 claiming “serious harm” to its ecological and economic interests.

The U.S. Supreme Court appointed a special master to hear the case that is currently underway in Portland, Maine. Ralph Lancaster Jr., the master, has made it clear that he’s aware of the Southeast’s latest drought. He has also hinted that neither Georgia nor Florida will be pleased with his ruling. The trial should end by Christmas.

Weeks of fire still ahead

Nights are finally cooling down in the North Georgia mountains, and the prospect of heavy frosts and higher humidity encourages the fire-weary.

Typically, at night, the air gets more humid, dew nestles onto the forest floor and moisture seeps into the leaves and brush and other flammable material. This fall’s drought, though, keeps humidity at near-record low levels and the forest dry.

“If you get humidity day after day at 30 percent or lower, over the long haul, it will dry out anything on the ground,” said Manuel, the National Weather Service meteorologist. “Things that don’t normally burn, like rhododendron, will burn. A little bit of moisture would prevent the extreme fire danger we have going on now.”

Drought weakens trees, making them susceptible to insects. Roughly 90 percent of the hemlocks in the Chattahoochee National Forest have been infested by the woolly adelgid, an invasive bug that sucks life-sustaining sap from the trees.

The Rock Mountain and Rough Ridge fires kept growing Friday. Firefighters had contained 30-40 percent of each fire. But the winds were expected to pick up over the weekend and the fires were likely to grow, particularly over the North Carolina line into the Southern Nantahala Wilderness Area.

Forest Service officials won’t attack the fire north of Georgia’s border. Too few roads. Too rugged terrain. Too few resources. Instead, they’ll pray for rain and let it burn out naturally.

Tuesday, at a community meeting in Clayton, locals wanted to know when the hills would stop burning, the air would turn breathable and the dangers would subside.

“I can’t give you a date yet,” said Noel Livingston, a fire service commander in charge of the Rock Mountain fire. “It could be two or three weeks at least. It’s going north into the wilderness. It will be a long-duration fire.”

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