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WEDNESDAY, MAY 16, 2007
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U.S. Forestry vehicles, left, prepare to exit on Interstate 10 from Interstate 75 in Lake City, Fla., with heavy equipment to assist firefighters battling wildfires. Forest fires in Georgia and Florida are causing haze in the Tennessee Valley.
AP photo by Red Huber
U.S. Forestry vehicles, left, prepare to exit on Interstate 10 from Interstate 75 in Lake City, Fla., with heavy equipment to assist firefighters battling wildfires. Forest fires in Georgia and Florida are causing haze in the Tennessee Valley.

Smoke falls on Alabama
Ga., Florida blazes causing haze here; conditions right for Alabama fires

By Holly Hollman
hhollman@decaturdaily.com 340-2445

When Nat King Cole sang "Those Lazy Hazy Crazy Days Of Summer," he wasn't thinking about forest fires creating that summer haze.

Area readers probably weren't thinking about forest fires in Georgia and Florida causing Tuesday's haze either, but that was the case.

The National Weather Service's Huntsville office said sections of North Alabama and Middle Tennessee experienced a smoky smell and hazy atmosphere. The wind pattern transported the smoke northwest to the region, and smoke and haze likely will continue off and on until Wednesday's cold front approaches, the service reported.

There's a chance the front will bring rain, a needed commodity for the drought-stricken area.

The service said Morgan, Limestone and Lawrence counties are in extreme drought conditions, and spotty rainfall provides short-term relief.

Unfortunately, the front won't bring a drenching. The Tennessee Valley will average a quarter inch of rain Wednesday, and some areas won't see a drop. The North Alabama area needs 18 to 21 inches to completely recover from drought conditions, and the service predicted dry weather will continue through May 23.

Terry Johnson, spokesman for the Tennessee Valley Authority, said rainfall for January through April was the second lowest in 118 years.

That means forestry officials in Alabama know the state could experience the devastating fires that are raging in Georgia and Florida.

Stephen May, fire director of the Alabama Forestry Commission, said the entire South is under a "serious drought situation."

"We're helping Florida and Georgia, but we've not had such a serious condition in Alabama," May said. "It is very possible that it could happen here."

Alabama is experiencing between 15 and 20 forest fires a day, he said. The fires have encompassed between 300 and 500 acres. There were 20 fires over the weekend.

"Some are accidental and some are arson, but most of the ones over the weekend were caused by lightning strikes," May said. "Compared to the entire state, the number we've seen is not a lot, but they are difficult to put out."

About half of the fires occurred in the northeast area of the state, he said.

There are no burn restrictions in the state yet, he said.

For farmers, the soil moisture is below normal and approaching historic lows, according to the weather service. The drought, combined with the Easter cold snap, has led to a near complete loss of wheat and partial loss of corn and hay fields.

Yards and plants also are suffering.

Bill Strain, owner of Strain and Sons Nursery in Athens, said he is irrigating his plants daily.

"The problem is the plants were already stressed due to the cold snap," Strain said. "The ones hurt by the freeze could die if the drought continues through the summer and gets like it was last year. Last summer was one of the worst I have seen."

The weather service listed 2007 as the driest year to date with 10.35 inches.

Crepe myrtles that have started to recover from the cold are likely to die if a drought persists through July, Strain said. Holly trees already are withering, he said.

Jeff Kelly, owner of All Seasons Professional Lawn and Landscaping in Decatur, said he is watering his customers' yards more because of the drought.

"The grass and plants are holding up OK," Kelly said, "but if they don't get water, they will start to wilt."

Kelly said it's best to water one day a week between 30 minutes and an hour so the roots get soaked rather than water 10 minutes a day. It's also better to water during the morning, he said.

The drought has caused TVA to operate the river system in conservation mode, Johnson said. The agency has done that since February by releasing minimum flows for navigation, water quality and water supply while trying to store water for summer target levels.

TVA's hydropower production is about half of normal because of the dry conditions. The Cherokee and Douglas reservoirs are about 12 feet below target levels. Johnson said TVA needs about 11/2 to 2 inches of rainfall a week to help reach target levels on most TVA tributary reservoirs by June 1.

How dry we are

Five driest calendar years to date at Huntsville

Rank Rainfall Year

1st 10.35 in. 2007

2nd 11.40 in. 1986

3rd 12.16 in. 1914

4th 12.76 in. 1941

5th 13.55 in. 1925

- National Weather Service

By the inch

Rainfall deficit data for Huntsville through May 13.

Period Inches

Month-to-date -1.55

Since March 1 -8.37

2006 to 2007 -13.50

Since Jan. 2006 -28.42

Since Jan. 2005 -45.78

- National Weather Service

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