Rockland brush fire spotlights region’s drought; precipitation low for several years

Rockland brush fire spotlights region’s drought; precipitation low for several years

15 November 2013

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USA — Drought can be subtle outside of the spring and summer. Brown leaves and grass don’t raise many eyebrows in the fall — even when there’s an 8-inch deficit in precipitation.

But there’s nothing understated about autumn brush fires, like the one that started ripping across a Rockland County mountain Thursday and was expected to burn into the weekend.

Such blazes are typically a spring thing, when the sun’s intensity is increasing and windy conditions often prevail.

“Usually, the spring is worse because the sun is stronger and it dries the ground out faster without the leaves (on the trees),” said Gordon Wren Jr., Rockland’s director of fire and emergency services. But this fall, “We haven’t had any real rain.”

No real rain has Westchester and Rockland counties experiencing a “moderate drought” with “abnormally dry” conditions setting up in Putnam County, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.

If less can be more, this year’s scarceness of rain and snow is just adding to a continuing shortfall. Weather experts this week said the immediate future promises no real relief from the dry conditions.

Except for 2011 (including Tropical Storm Irene), the normal annual amount of precipitation — 49.35 inches — hasn’t fallen in White Plains since 2007, the AccuWeather forecasting service said.

The total in 2008 was about 5 inches short, 2009 was about half off the mark and the other years saw at least 1 foot less than the usual amount.

Climatologist Jessica Spaccio of the Northeast Regional Climate Center at Cornell University said precipitation now tends to come in bursts.

“We’re finding that the long-term trend, affected by climate change, is that the Northeast is actually getting wetter. But the patterns are changing in how we get that precipitation. We are seeing longer dry periods, with more extreme precipitation events,” she said.

The ground is dry but there’s no shortage of drinking water.

United Water’s Lake DeForest reservoir, which serves much of Rockland, is about three-quarters full. That’s about normal for this time of year, a utility spokeswoman said.

New York City’s reservoir system delivers water to much of Westchester and part of Putnam. It’s still enjoying the benefit of its third-rainiest June on record, said Adam Bosch, a spokesman for the city’s Department of Environmental Protection.

As of Friday, the reservoir system was around 77 percent of capacity, about 8 points above normal. Two reservoirs in Southeast are practically empty, but only because they were lowered to let workers replace a nearby culvert.

Farmers in Westchester and Putnam are thankful the drought didn’t take hold in the spring and early summer, when their crops were getting established.

Workers dismantled the irrigation system at Hilltop Hanover Farm in Yorktown in early October, before cold temperatures could freeze and crack the lines. The leeks, carrots and scallions still in the fields were planted in late summer and early fall.

“We’ve gotten them to a point now where there’s not much growth left in them. No need really for any moisture or irrigation,” head farmer Brett Alcaro said. “They’re just basically going to sit in the ground until we get them out.”

Hay is on the menu slightly earlier than usual for the cows at Glynwood farm in Philipstown due to the dry conditions.

Joe Picca, a National Weather Service meteorologist, said the next couple weeks are likely to remain drier than usual.

“There’s no strong signal for major relief from the drought,” he said.

At Thunder Ridge ski area in Patterson, operator Mary Conklin said there’s enough water in their pond to make snow when cold temperatures descend.

“We’d love to have more rain,” she said. “The Farmer’s Almanac is calling for a more than average snowfall and cold. We’re hoping they’re right.”

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