A searing September: Weather officials say Upshur County received just a half-inch of rain last month

BUCKHANNON – When folks think of fall, usually cool, crisp, dry air comes to mind; however, this fall, the Mountain State is facing somewhat of a crisis.

Not only is the air dry, but so are creeks, rivers and the ground. In fact, state and county officials say residents of West Virginia, and more specifically, the Buckhannon-Upshur area, need to remember there is a ban on outdoor burning.

In addition, folks are also being asked to voluntarily conserve water at this time.

On Sept. 20, West Virginia Governor Jim Justice issued a press release placing a ban on burning in the state because of drought conditions. His original proclamation said the order was due to great concern that forest fires could unexpectedly and rapidly increase, endangering life and property “due to dry weather conditions and low water levels in many communities across the state.”

A second press release from the Governor’s Office on Sept. 23 amended the outdoor burning ban proclamation and added additional exclusions at the request of officials with the West Virginia Division of Forestry and the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources. The amended proclamation added an exclusion for fires built for warming or cooking within fireplaces or fire rings at designated federal and state recreation areas.

The release quoted West Virginia Division of Forestry Director and State Forester Barry Cook saying, “We have experienced a significant, extended period of above average temperatures, low humidity and below average rainfall. In September alone, we have experienced 60 different fires in the state.”

Cook noted conditions hadn’t approached the current level in a decade.

“This ban helps ensure we are doing what we can to protect our forests, the public and private property from the damage that could occur from a forest fire,” Cook said in the release.

Most recently, on Thursday, Justice declared a State of Emergency for all 55 West Virginia counties due to drought conditions. In that press release, Justice said the prolonged shortage of rainfall has caused “a moderate drought” across most of the state.

Over the last 90 days, West Virginia has received between 2-5 less inches of rainfall less than normal, with some pockets of 5-7 inches of rainfall deficits across the southern part of the state.

The release went on to state that as a result of the deficit, numerous rivers, lakes and streams are experiencing extremely low water levels, which lowers harvest amounts, limits water supplies for livestock and increases the risk of forest fires, among other potential dangers.

Tony Edwards, meteorologist with the NOAA National Weather Service in Charleston, said the Buckhannon/Upshur County area dry weather started toward the end of August.

“For the month of September, Upshur County only had, on average, about a half-inch of rain,” Edwards said during a phone interview with My Buckhannon Friday. “Further to the south, there were some communities that had no rain for the month of September.”

Edwards said the drought conditions are worse in the southern part of West Virginia.

“The Buckhannon/Upshur County area is rated as abnormally dry conditions,” he said. “That is the reason for the burn ban and the State of Emergency.”
Edwards said there will be a little reprieve from the dry conditions coming up very soon.

“We do have a little system coming in late this week/early next week,” he said. “It is going to bring some rain. Right now, we are forecasting probably about an inch to an inch-and-a-half of rain for the area. It could vary a little bit – it looks like a good, wetting rain.”

Edwards said this rain will help but will not be significant enough to eliminate the drought totally.

“We still need probably 4 or 5 inches of rain to get back to normal,” he said. “After this system goes through on Monday, we will dry out again, and there may be another system coming through again the following weekend. It will probably turn into another below-normal precipitation period for at least the next two weeks.”

Edwards said his office has been cautioning everyone to be very careful.

“There is a ban on outdoor burning ban in effect, but we have had some fires around,” he said. “It was so wet for the last two or three years, and so a lot of the vegetation has grown really well over the past couple of years. But now, with the leaves about to drop and all that tender vegetation, wildfires can get out of hand pretty quick. Folks just need to watch and be very careful.”

Jerry Myers is the chief operator at the Buckhannon Water Plant, and he said the lower water levels result in city works having to take additional steps in the process of getting water ready for consumption.

“Typically, we go through this pretty much every year as we go through the dry season,” Myers said Friday. “The water level gets low, and it gets pretty stagnant. When it gets this low, we are on a reservoir and not so much on a river system, because of the slow movement of the water.”

Myers said the low level of water increases the level of organic matter.

“Typically, and I am sure people are aware of this, you will start to recognize there is a little bit of a leafy or earthy taste or smell to your water,” Myers said. “That is something that is very hard to deal with. We are doing everything we can to optimize our treatment to target those issues. The water is safe – sometimes it just is not aesthetically pleasing as what we would prefer.”

He said Water Plant personnel have been monitoring the water level at the plant for close to a month.

“That is something that is always on our radar, especially when the weather starts to get dry,” Myers said. “It is not the worst I have seen in the 15 years I have worked here. I have seen it worse.”

Myers said the Water Plant has a drought management plan they follow when the water levels drop and there is drought throughout the state.

“We are just in the ‘watch stage’ right now,” he said. “This is something we are alert to. We are monitoring the situation … [but] the Buckhannon River is still flowing. It is getting close to being level with the top of the dam, but we are not in a critical mode just yet. It does create a few headaches trying to reduce the taste and the odor, but I think we are doing a decent job with that even though it is a challenge.”

Buckhannon Fire Department career firefighter John Brugnoli said the drought situation in the state is a pretty serious matter.

“There are a lot of municipalities throughout the state of West Virginia that are experiencing severe water shortages,” Brugnoli said. “That is big for the Buckhannon Fire Department in the instance that if there were a structure fire, you could run through 30,000 gallons of water in an instant. When you are looking at that, it is huge.”

“The City of Buckhannon has millions of gallons of water in its holding tank, thank goodness, and we have a very good water system, but still, when you are relying on the Buckhannon River, it is very low right now,” he added.

Referring to the burn ban, Brugnoli said cigarettes are often the root cause of brush fires.

“A huge portion of brush fires are started with cigarettes,” he said. “That is huge right now because the ground is so dry. We have a lot of areas like hayfields that are practically dead right now, and a fire will move through that in a matter of minutes.”

In some areas, the ground is so dry it is cracking, he added.

“Embers get down in those cracks and are very difficult to extinguish,” Brugnoli said. “Folks need to be conserving water – don’t water your grass. The agricultural watering for farmers is fine; they need to do that for their livelihood. We are asking people not to wash their cars and cut back on things that are not priority such as pressure-washing houses.”

Brugnoli said if residents suspect a brush fire, do not hesitate to call 911.

“We are trying to get to those fires as quick as possible because it is a little windy outside,” he said. “Brush fires can move at a substantial rate right now. If they suspect a brush fire or if they see someone burning illegally, we urge them to call 911 to report it. That way we can try to prevent some of that stuff.”

So, exactly how low is the Buckhannon River?

Upshur County Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management Director Brian Shreves told My Buckhannon the Buckhannon River level is 3.44 feet.

“People just need to be conscientious and be in water conservation mode – no outdoor watering, no washing vehicles – stuff like that, so we can conserve water and not end up in a drought situation,” Shreves said. “We don’t want to end up with the local public service districts not having enough water.”

Shreves said his office is in contact with the public service districts every few days.

“If there is an issue, we will be informed, and we will put it out to the public,” he said.
He said in the 20 years he has lived in Buckhannon, he has not seen conditions this severe before.

“Usually the Buckhannon River has from 6 to 8 feet of water,” Shreves said. “We are down to 3.44 feet of water.”

“My office is monitoring the situation,” he added. “If anything needs to go out to the public, we will post it on our Facebook page and put it out on our emergency alerting system.”

To sign up for the DHSEM alerts, please text UpshurCoWVAlerts to 69310 or visit http://entry.inspironlogistics.com/upshur_wv/wens.cfm. To read Justice’s emergency declaration, click here.

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