This isn’t exactly a news flash, but it could still ignite some surprises anyway: It’s dry out there.
This region finds itself in a deepening drought for the first time since the epically hot, dry year of 2012. That year was bad for crops and, subsequently, bad for the local economy — and it turned this area into a tinderbox.
While we haven’t yet reached those painful extremes yet — and, hopefully, we won’t — the fact remains that moisture is lacking right now and it’s magnifying the fire danger as we head into a dry and dangerous time of the year. As of this writing, Yankton is six inches behind normal for precipitation in 2020. On Tuesday, the National Weather Service issued a red-flag warning for southeastern South Dakota because of warm, breezy conditions and low humidity. Also, the long-range forecast for the rest of the month doesn’t offer much relief.
It has, indeed, been several years since this area has been gripped in drought. From 2013 and 2019, we saw some awfully wet years. For instance, 2018 was the first time ever that Yankton recorded 40 inches of rain in one calendar year; also, Yankton reportedly collected about 48 inches of rain between Memorial Day 2018 and Memorial Day 2019. And yes, the floods cannot easily be forgotten, especially last year when this area endured a bomb cyclone in March and then major flooding along the James River in September. A lot of farmers couldn’t even get crops planted or fields worked a year ago.
As such, we may tend to forget how hazardous drought conditions can be when they do arrive.
On Wednesday of last week, the Yankton vicinity endured some good reminders. Amid low humidity and strong winds, there were several field fires in the area, including a blaze just west of Vermillion that started in a ditch along Highway 50 — it might have been started by something as innocuous as a lit cigarette flicked out a vehicle window — and spread quickly both down the ditch and into a nearby cornfield. It wound up taking firefighters from four towns to get the blaze under control.
In such conditions, fires can also start from other sources such as a rock that creates sparks when picked up by and thrown from a combine harvesting a field.
Humans don’t help out either. For instance, the urge to undertake a controlled burn to clean out a field or ditch, or the desire to burn some rubbish, can turn into trouble very quickly.
Without moisture, these conditions will likely worsen as we get deeper onto fall. When the first freeze hits, the vegetation will start going dormant and become even more fuel to burn.
Because we do tend to forget these things after so many wet years, it’s important to heed those memories now.
The best advice on many days is to not burn anything in the countryside. If a controlled burn must be conducted (when the conditions are nominal), be sure to notify local authorities so they don’t wind up chasing columns of smoke across the countryside that are less than they actually appear.
A dry season is a dangerous season, when even the slightest spark can ignite major problems. Be mindful of what you’re doing and keep an eye on the forecasts. As always, play it safe.