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Special Report: Drought of '99

  Thanks to Humidity, Drought Hasn't Raised Fire Risk

By Josh White
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 14, 1999; Page V01

Temperatures were hovering at a hazy 93 degrees yesterday afternoon in Manassas as the regional drought continued to worsen, but officials in Prince William County said that there are no plans to curtail water use, and that the county does not have a significantly higher than usual fire hazard.

Despite an ongoing dry spell that has left much of the Washington region gasping for water, county officials said that the drought has not significantly depleted its water supply or seriously affected rural water reserves for fire response. Officials said a careful survey of rural sources this week discovered that about 5 percent of the supply had become unusable because of low water levels.

Kevin McGee, chief of operations for Prince William County Fire and Rescue, said yesterday that the amount of unusable sources is slightly above the seasonal average, but that it is not of concern because there is sufficient redundancy in the county's water supply. McGee said that there are no areas of the county that would be without sufficient water in a fire emergency. He said most of the affected areas are in the less-populated western and central parts of the county.

"It's not a problem yet," McGee said. "All we can do is to continue to monitor the sources, and we'll make adjustments if they're needed. We just have to continue to do that on an ongoing basis, and if there are problems in certain areas, we'll try to identify alternatives."

Fire and rescue spokesman Steve Strawderman said there have been only two relatively small brush fires in the past month, both in the Cherry Hill area and both likely the result of human error rather than the drought conditions. Strawderman said that even with high temperatures and a lack of rain, fire hazards have not risen dramatically because the weather has remained humid.

Strawderman said the highest occurance of brush fires and wildfires is almost always in the spring and fall, when dry conditions and wind make forests and brush prime targets for fast-spreading blazes. Such as with the fires at Quantico Marine Corps Base and in Prince William Forest Park last spring, the combination of dry brush and dry weather create a danger, Strawderman said.

"The high humidity is a good thing in a way, and we tend to have more brush fires when it's drier because of the wind drying out everything," Strawderman said. "Then if someone throws a cigarette out the window, it can just go."

County spokeswoman Liz Bahrnes said yesterday that Prince William has no plans to limit water use, and that county officials are carefully monitoring water for both residential and emergency use as fears have grown across the region. She said officials are considering a resolution to get financial help for the county's farmers, who have been suffered low crop yields because of the drought and heat.

She said the Board of County Supervisors likely will consider a resolution at its Sept. 7 meeting to request aid from the state drought task force. The aid likely would be in the form of low-interest loans to farmers.

"The hardest-hit in this situation are the farmers," Bahrnes said. "We're trying to take care of them, and we're looking into obtaining some form of relief."

© 1999 The Washington Post Company

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