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Area placed
under fire alert

Driest March in decade keeping
local firefighters busy

By Paul Huggins 340-2395

The driest March of this decade is keeping firefighters and allergy doctors busy.

Through 11 a.m. Monday, Morgan County firefighters had extinguished 16 grass/shrub fires since Friday. Limestone County officials had battled 18.

As of Monday afternoon, Morgan, Limestone and Lawrence counties were under a fire alert. The alert is not a "no burn" order, but residents must obtain a burn permit from the Alabama Forestry Commission.

The state added 20 counties to the fire alert Monday after temperatures climbed into the upper 80s, humidity dropped below 30 percent and wind gusts surpassed 20 mph.

"That's a dangerous combination," said Cora Coleman, dispatcher of the Alabama Forestry Commission.

Alert helping

The fire alert, which now affects 43 counties, appears to be helping, she said, because Monday afternoon there were only three fires in progress and the state had been averaging 10 each afternoon.

To date, March has seen 1,041 fires across the state with 20,523 acres burned.

It's so dry, even logs and dead trees that normally are saturated with moisture are igniting, said Mike Cook, Bankhead Forest fire management officer.

Those fuel sources are a problem because they burn hotter and longer and create more smoke, he said, noting the National Forest Service has battled four fires in the past week.

Another drought problem is some streams that normally would serve as fire breaks are so dry the fires are passing right over them, Cook added.

The forest service has placed a temporary ban on campfires and charcoal fires except in recreation areas that provide grills and fire rings. Backpackers and backwoods campers can still use portable gas stoves.

For burn permits or to report a fire or someone burning without a permit, call the forestry commission at (800) 942-3107.

March is typically a busy month for grass and brush fires as the warmer temperatures and windy days dry out grass and leaves.

But this month has been uncommonly dry, according to National Weather Service statistics.

"March is typically our wettest month, usually about six to seven inches of rain. This year we're not even to one," said Jason Elliott, a NWS meteorologist in Huntsville.

The NWS has listed three days of rainfall this month, with the last occurring March 16. Total rainfall for the month is 0.71 inches.

Last year, Decatur has 2.3 inches from seven days of rain, while 2005 had 3.79 inches from 14 days of rain. Decatur data is unavailable for 2004, but Huntsville had 5.76 inches from 10 days of rain.

"Usually in March we get a system about every three days, and this March it's been every two weeks," Elliott said.

Two weather conditions are responsible for the dry, unseasonably hot weather, he said.

The Bermuda High is farther west and the jet stream is farther north than normal, causing moisture from the Gulf of Mexico to bypass the Southeast through Texas and the Midwest.

Wednesday and Saturday will each bring 20 percent chance of rain, but even if it does rain, it won't be much, Elliott said.

That's bad new for allergy sufferers who need a heavy downpour to help clear the air of pollen.

"When it's dry and windy, that's when you get the highest pollen counts in the air," said Dr. Mahipal Ravipati of Decatur Allergy Clinic.

Some of the pollen will settle at night, but as long as it stays dry and windy, a lot will continue circulating in the air, he said.

The dry conditions of March have brought a 30 to 40 percent increase in patients to his office, he said.

Dr. Steven Fletcher of the Eye, Ear, Nose and Throat Clinic of Decatur also said he's seen an increase in business.

"I've got some patients who noses are a very good barometer of the pollen season," he said. "I don't even have to read the journals. When those patients show up, I know it's pollen season."

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