Eintime Conversion for education and research 10-15-2009 @ 12:57:28
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Record dry start to 2009 worries farmers, firefighters

By Oren Dorell, USA TODAY

The first two months of 2009 are the driest start of any year since the USA began keeping records over a century ago, leading to severe drought in Texas, dipping reservoir levels in Florida and a surge in wildfires across the nation.

Farmers, cattlemen, firefighters and others worry that the dry start may be a harbinger of a bleak summer that could lead to increasing risk of fire and poor crop conditions.

Cattle rancher Jim Selman of Gonzales, Texas, has sold all but 30 of his 300 to 400 breeding cows because his pasture is too dry to feed them. "It might take me 10 years or more to get back where I was," he says. "It's so dry."

Richard Heim, a meteorologist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's National Climatic Data Center, said the 2.69-inch average rainfall across the U.S. in January and February is the least amount of moisture in those months since NOAA began keeping records in 1895.

So far this year, the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise has logged 11,814 wildfires, the most for any two-month period in a decade and almost 3,700 more than the average.

The dry spell extends a drought that has hammered Central Texas since 2007 and California and the Southeast since 2006.

• In Texas, planting season for cotton, corn and sorghum should be well underway, but in much of the state it's been too dry to plant, says state climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon. Even with 2 inches of rain forecast for the next few days, crops will be at risk, Nielsen-Gammon said.

"Winter rain is like putting money in the bank for plants to withdraw," he said. "That supply of water isn't there, so plants will be very vulnerable to dry spells."

• In South Florida, Lake Okeechobee is at 12.54 feet, which is about 2 feet below its average for much of the past 45 years. The South Florida Water Management District is holding public meetings starting today to discuss water restrictions, spokesperson Gabe Margasak said.

• In California, NOAA reports the snowpack is at 80% of normal and much of the state is under severe drought. State officials are using prison inmate crews to clear away brush and create fire breaks around communities to reduce the risk of wildfires, said Daniel Berlant, spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

The dry winter could mean a longer fire season in the summer because the grasses will dry out sooner and the trees will have less moisture in them, Berlant said.

Despite the current severity, the latest conditions pale in comparison to the drought of the 1930s, known as the Dust Bowl. At its height in July 1934, nearly two-thirds of the nation was in a severe to extreme drought. Today, 7% is. Hundreds of heat records from the 1930s still stand across the Plains.

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