When Jeff Prestemon stepped outside his home near Raleigh, N.C., last Friday around 9 a.m., the skies were clear, the air “perfectly breathable.” But just an hour-and-a-half later, the winds had shifted, drawing with them the smoke from regional wildfires. “It was putrid,” Prestemon, a research forester with the U.S. Forest Service, said. “It stungMore
The end of November marks the end of meteorological fall. According to preliminary data from the Southeast Regional Climate Center, most of the country had a fall that was substantially warmer than normal from September through November, with the most intense warmth blanketing the eastern two-thirds of the U.S..
While there were a few wet spots this fall along the immediate Southeast coast and the Pacific Northwest, drought continued to be the defining story for the U.S., particularly in the Southeast. The drought that began there this summer intensified throughout the fall.
Several locations in the Southeast had one of their five driest falls on record. Asheville, N.C. and Birmingham, Ala. both had their driest fall on record. The most recent Drought Monitor indicates how expansive the worst conditions have become in the Southeast. More than 47,000 square miles — roughly the equivalent of all of Pennsylvania — are mired in exceptional drought, the most dire category of drought.
The Chimney Tops 2 fire, which scorched parts of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge on Monday, has burned 17,000 acres and destroyed 700 structures. There are 10 other large fires burning across the Southeast.
A broad area of the southern Appalachians had 1 to 3 inches of rain earlier this week, which helped slow the spread of the wildfires. Speaking about the Chimney Tops 2 fire, Operations Section Chief Mark Jamieson noted that the rain means “the fire is not out, it is just knocked down.”
That fire — along with others— is expected to spread again into the start of the weekend, as dry and mild weather remains in place there through Saturday. After clouds and spotty showers temper the fire late Sunday into Monday, another beneficial soaking rain is expected to move in late Monday night into Tuesday morning. That same soaking will start to ease the drought further west into Alabama, Georgia and Mississippi.
Whether wildfires in the Southeast become more prevalent in a world warming from increased greenhouse gases is still an active area of research. In some places, like the western U.S., there’s been a clear increase in wildfires driven in large part by climate change. That trend is likely to continue. The future of wildfires in the Southeast is a little less clear, though. Rising temperatures can dry out soil, which can in turn cause drought to develop more quickly, but that is only part of the equation. Shifts in vegetation and rainfall patterns are also important to determining if the Southeast faces more fires in the future.
After the spell of rain early next week in the Southeast, several days of dry weather will follow, and the Southeast will have its first real cold spell of the season. The weak La Niña that is in place favors a milder and drier winter in the Southeast, so in spite of some rainy spells, there is a chance that the drought could linger into the spring, raising the risk of wildfires into next year.