Southern storms should ease drought, but fire threat remains

(Photo: WKRN)
(Photo: WKRN)

ATLANTA (AP) — Storms rolling across the South appeared to be taking aim at some of the largest wildfires burning across the region, which could finally help firefighters in their efforts to subdue the blazes, authorities said Monday.

As the storm system passed over Mississippi, Alabama and Tennessee late Monday, it was heading toward some of largest wildfires in Georgia and North Carolina.

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The rain forecast “puts the bullseye of the greatest amounts right at the bullseye of where we’ve been having our greatest activity,” said Dave Martin, deputy director of operations for fire and aviation management with the southern region of the U.S. Forest Service.

The projected rainfall amounts “really lines up with where we need it,” Martin said Monday. “We’re all knocking on wood.”

Yet after weeks of punishing drought, any rain that falls should be soaked up quickly, forecasters said. It will provide some relief but won’t end the drought – or the fire threat, they say.

Drought conditions will likely persist, authorities said. The problem is that rainfall amounts have been 10 to 15 inches below normal during the past three months in many parts of the South, authorities said.

“I think we racked up deficits that are going to be too much to overcome with just one storm system,” said Mark Svoboda, director of the National Drought Mitigation Center in Lincoln, Nebraska.

“I would say it’s way too early to say ‘Yes, this drought is over,'” Svoboda said. “Does it put a dent in it? Yes, but we have a long ways to go.”

The rain also brings danger since strong winds at the leading edge of the storms can topple trees and limbs that can kill and injure firefighters, he said.

Some of the storms could be severe, according to forecasters at the Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Oklahoma.

Damaging winds will be the primary threat, with tornadoes also possible, forecasters said.

In Louisiana, a tornado watch was in effect until Monday evening for western and northern parts of the state.

In Mississippi, more than 14,000 customers were without power Monday. Outages were concentrated in central and southeast Mississippi, according to power providers.

The northern part of Mississippi could get between 3 and 3 ½ inches of rain, said forecaster Anna Wolverton of the National Weather Service in Jackson.

With drought conditions across much of the Deep South, Wolverton said, “Any amount will help.”

“Most of the state had a wet spring and summer, but going into the fall months we are about 9 inches below normal,” she said.

Alabama was expected to see severe weather by Monday night.

In Georgia, high wind warnings were issued for mountainous areas in northern parts of the state through Monday night. Scattered thunderstorms were possible over north and portions and west central Georgia on Monday night, forecasters said.

In South Carolina, the stormy forecast was giving hope to firefighters battling a blaze in the northwest corner of the state. The South Carolina Forestry Commission hopes to contain the Pinnacle Mountain fire by the middle of next week.