CHARLESTON, W.Va. – The drought that has plagued the Deep South for more than a year is creeping northward, and officials in multiple states are restricting outdoor burning in the face of water shortages and forest fire risks from falling leaves and tinder-dry conditions.
Extreme drought conditions, the second-worst possible, have now spread into Kentucky, and severe conditions have returned to West Virginia and southwest Virginia, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.
"The last three months have sucked every bit of moisture we've had," said Ben Webster, a fire staff assistant for the West Virginia Division of Forestry.
In eastern Kentucky, retailers are sending bottled water to drought-stricken Magoffin County after its primary water source, the Licking River, fell to low levels and residents were told to conserve tap water.
The county's school system is serving meals on disposable plates with plastic utensils. Lunch trays have been temporarily shelved to save on dishwashing.
Kentucky also suffered through a severe drought a year ago, but "this is probably the worst that I've had to deal with," said Joe Hunley, Magoffin County's schools superintendent.
Tens of thousands of gallons of bottled water have been distributed through a fire department and a water company alone.
"We're bringing water in daily and distributing it to those people who are in need," said county health director Berti Salyer. "Of course, that's just about everyone in Magoffin County right now."
Outdoor burning has been banned outright in 34 Kentucky counties and limited to between 4 p.m. to 7 a.m. in West Virginia.
"We're just telling people to use extreme caution and a whole lot of common sense when they're burning," Webster said.
Virginia officials need only look to last winter for reminder to be careful with campfires and burning leaves. High winds on Feb. 10 were blamed for wildfires that charred more than 16,000 acres.
"Take an extra precaution, take that extra time to make sure that fire is fully out, "said John Miller, the Virginia Department of Forestry's director of resource protection.
Thursday's rains did little to calm the threat and the short-term forecast holds no relief.
The largely hardwood forests of Kentucky and West Virginia do not burn as fiercely as the pine forests of the West. Since Oct. 1, 148 forest fires have burned 2,052 acres in Kentucky, and 103 fires have burned 452 acres in West Virginia.
West Virginia officials want to avoid years like 2001, when 86,465 acres burned during the October-December period, or 2006, when 1,022 fires were reported.
"The problem with a drought in the fall is as the leaves start to come down, if you have continued dry weather, the fire threats go up," said Mark Pellerito, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Charleston.
West Virginia doesn't have the water supply concerns seen elsewhere because water tables are still within a couple inches of normal ranges due to a wet spring, Pellerito said.
Elsewhere in the South, however, a lack of water remains the main concern.
In Tennessee, Gov. Phil Bredesen has requested a federal designation of agricultural disaster for 39 counties because of crop and livestock losses. And in parts of north Alabama and Georgia, the Army Corps of Engineers recently said below normal rainfall could bring a third consecutive year of drought.
Tennessee and South Carolina worry Atlanta may look to the nearby Tennessee or Savannah rivers for relief. Meanwhile, Georgia, Alabama and Florida have fought over how much water can be stored in north Georgia lakes.
South Carolina Attorney General Henry McMaster sued North Carolina last year after the state decided to allow 10 million gallons of water a day to be diverted from the Catawba River, which flows into South Carolina.