Oppressive heat and humidity lead to extreme drought, record temperatures expected to persist

July 23, 2011 

Oppressive heat and humidity has led to record temperatures in Beaufort and Jasper counties this summer, putting the area in an "extreme drought," according to federal meteorologists.

Higher-than-usual temperatures have dried out the Lowcountry, so much so that local officials say they're concerned about the chance for intense and fast-spreading brush fires.

The S.C. Forestry Commission imposed a red-flag fire alert on the area earlier this month, warning that wildfire danger is increasing and asking people to postpone outdoor burning.

The alert and drought conditions prompted the Town of Hilton Head Island to impose a ban on outdoor burning. That ban will remain in place through early August, said Fire Chief Lavarn Lucas. Violations could result in fines up to $1,093.

Even with occasional rain, outdoor burning could become difficult to control, Lucas said.

"We received a fair amount of rain last weekend, but it was isolated and did not saturate the ground, and the hot weather that followed quickly dried things out," he said. "We have to look for a soaking rain that is widespread."

So far, residents and visitors have complied with the ban, Lucas said. The town's Fire & Rescue Division has issued no tickets or warnings since it was imposed at the beginning of the month.

It's been at least four years since the town last issued such a ban, Lucas said. Town fire officials say they will reassess whether to lift the ban Aug. 4 or 5.

LONGEST STRING ABOVE 90 DEGREES

The consistently hot weather made June and July ones for the record books.

Temperatures in the region broke 90 degrees 56 straight days until July 14, the longest such stretch on record, according to the National Weather Service in Charleston.

Last year, the region saw a string of 40 days surpassing 90 degrees, ending on Aug. 14. The second-longest stretch of days topping 90 degrees was 44 in 1993, according to the weather service.

"This is pretty impressive," said weather service meteorologist Steve Rowley.

And the heat is not expected to let up.

Heat indexes are expected to exceed 105 degrees through the middle of this week , according to the weather service.

Then, temperatures will drop slightly to the lower- to mid-90s, Rowley said. "The change will be subtle," he said, "and it won't take much more to get back up to where we are now."

Heat advisories -- meaning heat-related illnesses are possible -- have been issued for Beaufort County on and off this summer, including last week. High humidity mixed with temperatures in the upper-90s led to heat indexes to 106 degrees Friday, according to the weather service.

NOT ONLY HOT, BUT DRY

The Savannah-Hilton Head area is in "extreme drought," according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. The area is six inches below normal rainfall for the year and was 1.5 inches below normal for June, Rowley said.

The state Drought Response Committee designates Beaufort and Jasper counties as being in a "moderate drought."

Moderate drought means stream flows are low and conditions could threaten agriculture and increase the risk of forest fires.

The U.S. Drought Monitor classifies the area as being in "extreme drought," because of major crop and pasture losses and widespread water shortages or restrictions. The federal classification is based on data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, as well as national water and climate data.

Recent rainfall has provided some relief to Beaufort County water utilities, but they also report seeing near-record demand.

"Recent rainfall helped us tremendously. For example, one inch of rainfall dropped our demand by 3 million gallons a day" because of less irrigation, said Pete Nardi, community relations manager for Hilton Head No. 1 Public Service District.

The utility has seen all-time peak demand at times this summer because of the drought.

"We had several days this year where we were at more than 11 million gallons a day. A typical peak for us is 9 to 10 million gallons a day during the summer," Nardi said. "But the recent rain has us looking good."

The Beaufort-Jasper Water & Sewer Authority has seen near-record demand, but is in better shape than it was during the state's last big drought in 2009, said deputy general manager Ed Saxon.

No relief is in sight, but both utilities say water levels are adequate. However, customers are encouraged to conserve, a habit that also will save them money.

And if you plan to be outside during these heat-filled days, take precautions to prevent heat stroke and other heat-related illnesses, the weather service says. It recommends rescheduling strenuous activities to the early morning or evening, wearing lightweight and loose-fitting clothing when possible and drinking plenty of water.

"Anyone overcome by heat should be moved to a cool and shaded location," the weather service says. "Heat stroke is an emergency -- call 911."

Follow reporter Tom Barton at twitter.com/EyeOnHiltonHead.

Related Content:

Beaufort County moved to 'moderate' drought status: June 17, 2011

Storms don't alleviate long-term drought risk: June 16, 2011

High temps, low rainfall put Lowcountry near drought: June 2, 2011

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