Six months after end of last drought, much of North Carolina drying out again

Six months after end of last drought, much of North Carolina drying out again

November 9th, 2023

Just six months after the entire state was considered drought free, most of North Carolina is back into at least abnormally dry conditions with severe drought now being experienced along the southern tier from the mountains to the Sandhills.

The Greater Outer Banks region has also moved into the first and second levels of drought, due to an extended period of relatively dry weather.

“Last week saw essentially no measurable rainfall across the state, along with warmer temperatures and lower humidity levels that accelerated the drying of soils and fuels,” according to the N.C. Drought Update published Thursday (PDF).

Preliminary data from the National Centers for Environmental Information shows a statewide average precipitation of 1.15 inches in October, the 10th-driest October since 1895. It was also the state’s driest October since 2000, which had a record low 0.08 inches of rain on average across the state.

The recent dry weather has led to nearly 400 wildfires to ignite on state and private lands, the N.C. Climate Office said. Three large fires are burning in western North Carolina.

With a dryer-than-expected pattern set-up over the state for much of this past summer and now into fall, along with leaf drop just adding more fuel, concerns are rising about the wildfire threat across North Carolina.

A burn ban has been instituted in western parts of the state, and it could be extended farther east if the forecast for continued relatively dry weather is realized.

The N.C. Drought Management Advisory Council reports a wedge of salt water has moved up the Roanoke River beyond the Domtar pulp mill’s intake in Plymouth.

The mountain towns of Boone and Marion have requested water conservation measures, including the limiting of outdoor water use.

Stream flows are nearing historic lows in the Sandhills, while procedures have been instituted in the Catawba River basin to release less water through dams and lower minimum lake levels.

The southern parts of Currituck, Camden, Pasquotank and Perquimans counties, and northern Tyrrell County, the Dare mainland, Roanoke Island, and the northern beach areas from Nags Head to Corolla, are in moderate drought.

A pond in Nags Head Woods has all but dried out on Nov. 9, 2023. [@DavidADeel/Twitter]
Abnormally dry conditions are being experienced elsewhere in northeastern North Carolina, which is bringing back memories of massive wildfires in parts of interior sections of the coast that burned for weeks and months.

The most recent was this past March, when a wildfire lasting three weeks in Tyrrell County scorched 5,280 acres.

It was eventually extinguished through a combination of water pumping efforts from Phelps Lake and a wetter-than-normal spring that moved North Carolina out of dry conditions for the first time since 2021..

Areas on the mainland have been prone to wildfires that have burned the nutrient-rich peat soils for months, especially during periods of extended drought.

In the spring of 2016, the Whipping Creek Fire burned over 15,000 acres in Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge in mainland Dare and Hyde counties and the Dare Bombing Range.

While the summer of 2016 was wetter than normal, helping ease drought conditions somewhat, it took Hurricane Matthew that October to finally help extinguish the fire with record-setting rainfall and flooding.

During another serious drought year in 2011, the Pains Bay Fire burned over 45,000 acres of the refuge and bombing range while threatening to spread into the village of Stumpy Point.

That fire smoldered for months with smoke plumes visible from more than 100 miles away, that would blanket the Outer Banks with a thick, acrid haze for days when the winds blew the right direction. It took rains from Hurricane Irene to finally put it out.

Now with the drought starting to creep further up the scale, concerns about another fall and winter punctuated by increased wildfire activity for the Greater Outer Banks is rising.

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