The Southeast is battling some of its worst drought and wildfires on record this week. Over a period of months, the grass has dried up and the soil has caked over. No significant rain is in the forecast for the next few weeks to give firefighting crews reprieve.
Brown, putrid smoke hangs heavy in the air. The entire state of South Carolina is covered in an unhealthy haze from fires burning in the Blue Ridge Mountains. On Tuesday, satellite imagery confirmed that the smoke is drifting out over the Atlantic Ocean. In a cruel twist, putting out fires actually increases the smoke output. The harder crews try to suppress the fires, the worse the air quality becomes downwind.
There are 17 active wildfires in the southern Appalachians, some of which are large and still not contained. Three have burned more than 5,000 acres. In total, more than 80,000 acres have been charred by the fires as of Tuesday evening.
The extreme wildfire situation is no surprise to residents in the Southeast — the region has been bone-dry for months. The airport in Asheville, N.C., just recorded its driest 75-day period on record. There have only been two days that the airport has seen anything more than a 10th-of-an-inch of rain, the National Weather Service said.
Birmingham, Ala., has had zero measurable rainfall since mid-September. Atlanta has received just a fraction of its typical autumn rain. The city has gone 30 straight days since seeing measurable rain. If it doesn’t rain between now and Saturday, it will break the record for longest streak without rain. Since Oct. 1, the city has only reported 0.16 inches. It usually sees around five inches in that span.
So the drought is intense and prolific. Exceptional drought, the most severe on the scale, covers portions of Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi. Extreme drought extends even farther than that. It’s transitioning from just a short-term period of dryness into a long-term drought.
In Tennessee, two men were arrested for suspected arson in separate cases. They’ve been charged with intentionally setting fires along roads, according to the AP. Wildfires have burned more than 16,000 acres in the state.
A code-red air-quality alert is in effect for much of South Carolina and western North Carolina. A code red means the air is unhealthy for everyone — not just people with respiratory illness or weakened immune systems. The National Weather Service is recommending that residents close the intakes on their air conditioners and heating units to prevent smoke from infiltrating homes.