Exceptional drought: Rain unlikely to bring much relief to Chattanooga region

U.S. Drought Monitor / The drought monitor released Nov. 9 for Tennessee.

As most of Hamilton and Marion counties plunge into exceptional drought, the state has posted burn bans for Franklin, Grundy and Sequatchie counties that will remain in effect for the next 10 days, extending beyond predicted weekend rains hoped to quench wildfires across the region.

A new wildfire was controlled Thursday morning just before another broke out on about 1 acre on Company Farm Road in Grundy County, and the ongoing wildfire on McJunkin Road in Polk County's Cherokee National Forest is 90% contained within firefighter lines now but has burned more than 375 acres, according to the Tennessee Division of Forestry's wildfire map.

"We ended up having another new start fire on Wehutty Road yesterday. That fire went around 10 acres and is 100% contained now," Steve Lofty, Polk County Emergency Management Agency director, posted in a social media update Thursday. "The New Stansbury, Trewitt Road, McJunkin Road fire is still 100% contained. Crews were on the lines all night catching hot spots and line jumps. Crews are back on the lines today checking for hot spots and working to cleanup the lines and roads on all the fires."

Officials across the region are warning people not to burn amid drought conditions that are unlikely to improve soon.

The Chattanooga-Hamilton County Air Pollution Control Bureau has issued a notice suspending outdoor burning "until further notice due to the increased potential for wildfires from severely dry conditions and low humidity."

Marion County has no state or county burn ban, but a state burn permit restriction is in place, and County Mayor David Jackson hopes residents use common sense when it comes to burning in drought conditions. Burn bans can be issued by county mayors, but it's not a decision to make too quickly, he said.

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"I'm not going to issue a burn ban with this rain coming in," Jackson said by phone. "We'll see how it goes. The state's not issuing permits, so if you do burn, Forestry could issue a citation. We highly recommend no burning at this time."

  photo  Polk County 911 Emergency Communication District / The 50-acre McJunkin Road fire can be seen in the distance in Polk County, Tenn., early Tuesday, not far from the North Carolina state line. Firefighters from local departments, neighboring counties and states have worked alongside the Tennessee Division of Forestry to contain the blaze.

Weekend rains offer little help

Incoming precipitation forecast by the National Weather Service through the weekend should bring some relief but no drought-busting soakers.

"Unfortunately, this doesn't look like the kind of rainfall we need. Right now, we're forecasting a half-inch of rain," weather service meteorologist Kyle Snowdin said of weekend accumulation in a phone interview. "The bulk of the rain will fall Friday morning into the afternoon, and there might be a few lingering showers Saturday and Sunday."

Over the past 60 days, Chattanooga fell 7.37 inches behind normal in rainfall, and over the past 30 days, Chattanooga was 3 inches behind normal for the period, Snowdin said.

The little moisture the rain brings in the next couple of days will dry up next week as low afternoon humidity levels return, he said. That means a return of favorable conditions for wildfire.

Authorities also have begun to look for people responsible for some fires believed to have been intentionally set and others caused by recklessness, and Grundy County Sheriff Heath Gunter said a $2,500 fine and misdemeanor citation will be issued to anyone violating the burn ban.

"Multiple misdemeanor citations have already been issued by our office and the cases turned over to the investigative division," Gunter said on his office's social media page.

Wildfires occurring all at once in so many places make Lofty suspicious they were intentionally set, he said Wednesday, and he urged residents to be on the lookout for anything suspicious and report it to 911.

Meanwhile, firefighters battling blazes in Southeast Tennessee's mountainous terrain can take a break, if brief.

Joel Blackburn, state assistant district forester in East Tennessee, said higher humidity cloud cover with the incoming weather system helped keep fires down Thursday, and the rain should provide a respite for at least a few days.

"Anything helps," Blackburn said in by phone. "It'll give us two or three days to rest, and then we'll see what next week holds for us."

Exceptional drought

The U.S. Drought Monitor released Thursday shows 90 of Tennessee's 95 counties are experiencing moderate drought to exceptional drought, the most severe of drought conditions.

Almost 82% of Hamilton County is experiencing exceptional drought conditions, and 73% of Marion County has equal dryness, the monitor shows. Small portions of Bradley and Sequatchie counties have exceptional drought. The rest of those two counties and at least 45 other Tennessee counties are in extreme drought. According to the monitor, 92% of Tennessee is experiencing some level of drought, with Hamilton and Marion counties representing the driest 2.4% of the state.

Across the state line in Georgia, Dade, Walker, Catoosa and part of Murray counties are all shown in the exceptional drought bulls-eye along with Hamilton and Marion in Tennessee, according to the monitor. Jackson and DeKalb counties in Alabama also are experiencing exceptional and extreme drought.

Burn bans

The state burn bans in place apply to all open-air burning, including leaf and woody debris and construction burning, campfires, outdoor grills and other fire activity outside of municipalities where local ordinances apply, according to the Division of Forestry. A violation of a Commissioner of Agriculture imposed burn ban is considered reckless burning and is punishable as a misdemeanor that carries a fine of $2,500 and/or up to 11 months 29 days in jail.

(READ MORE: Hamilton County, most of Southeast Tennessee in extreme drought)

In addition, the state also has temporarily ceased issuing burn permits for every county in East Tennessee, Blackburn said.

Ongoing drought conditions in Alabama prompted Gov. Kay Ivey to issue a statewide ban on any outdoor burning Wednesday because of dry conditions that have caused more than 300 wildfires in the past two weeks. The statewide drought emergency declaration took effect Thursday at 8 a.m. People should report violations of the no-burn order to law enforcement, the governor's office said.

The drought emergency declaration order will remain in effect until after conditions have changed enough to reduce the frequency and danger of wildfires, the governor's office said.

The same is true in Tennessee, Blackburn said earlier in the week. If enough rain falls, burn permits can be issued again, but the dry forecast increases the likelihood of extended restrictions.

Blackburn didn't believe a half-inch of rain would make much difference next week, but a few days rest will allow firefighters to be ready for the coming dry days, he said.

Contact Ben Benton at bbenton@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6569.

  photo  Polk County 911 Emergency Communication District / The 50-acre McJunkin Road fire can be seen in the distance in Polk County, Tenn., early Tuesday, not far from the North Carolina state line. Firefighters from local departments, neighboring counties and states have worked alongside the Tennessee Division of Forestry to contain the blaze.