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Massive Wildfire Burns as Flash Drought Strengthens

posted on August 30, 2013

Steady growth and a positive attitude among consumers were bits of good news as the economy continues its bumpy 5-year-old recovery from the Great Recession.

According to the Commerce Department, second quarter gross domestic product, the broadest gauge of the U.S. economy, grew at an annual rate of 2.5 percent -- higher than previously anticipated.

Consumer Confidence increased in August, as positive job and earning prospects joined with an upbeat business outlook to push the index to its highest level in two and a half years.

Consumer spending, which accounts for 70 percent of economic activity, grew by 1.8 percent in the second quarter. Overall wages and salaries tumbled from June causing some economists to worry about prospects for third quarter growth.

Despite the positive economic news, the threat of U.S. intervention in Syria moved the price of oil over $112 per barrel midweek. But by Friday, oil settled just above $107 as the prospect of an immediate attack diminished.

And officials with USDA say U.S. net farm income is expected to reach $120.6 billion this year. If realized, it would be the second highest amount since 1973 but 6 percent lower than predicted in February.

It has been a tough weather-week across the nation.  A dome of high pressure settled over the Midwest creating a late season heat wave that continues to bake precious moisture out of the soil. Nowhere has that lack of water been felt than in the West where a fire the size of several major metropolitan cities has been burning for more than two weeks.

Massive Wildfire Burns as Flash Drought Strengthens

Fire crews in the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range are making progress, however, the giant wildfire is still growing.

The nearly 2-week-old Rim Fire burning in and around Yosemite National Park, is barely 30 percent contained and has left more than 300 square miles of scorched earth in its wake.

The wildfire, larger in size than the city of Chicago, is spreading through rugged forest, but its progress is being slowed by cooler temperatures and lighter winds.

Tom Medema / Yosemite National Park spokesman: "The situation in this fire is that it's burning hot and it's burning in the crown. When a naturally occurring fire happens in the forest, it tends to burn on the forest floor at a much lower intensity. It returns nutrients to the soil."

Thick black smoke is blanketing the area, reducing visibility. Survey crews are using helicopters to monitor the fire’s progress, and now California National Guard Predator drones are being flown in for an almost real-time view of the flames.

What’s left behind is charred and heavily damaged terrain. Some of the blackened area has not been touched by fire in nearly a century.

Tom Medema / Yosemite National Park spokesman: "When a fire gets into an area that hasn't burned in a long time, those fuels are so dry and the fuels are so thick, we get a really hot fire and it really scorches the earth, and it doesn't return nutrients to the soil as readily, and it actually destroys some of the soil."

The fire started August 17 and has become one of the largest California wildfires on record. It has burned through structures, giant sequoias and even threatened the main reservoir serving San Francisco.

Officials believe they can fully surround the Rim Fire blaze in three weeks, but they expect to burn until winter rains arrive.

If the newest Farmer’s Almanac is correct, precipitation will be close to normal in that region.

Across the nation, the annual periodical is calling for a winter with below average temperatures for two-thirds of the country - east of the Continental Divide to the Appalachians, and north and east through New England - with the coldest temperatures in the Northern Plains to the Great Lakes.

However, above-normal precipitation is predicted for the Southern Plains, Midwest and Southeast.

But that moisture seems far off for the parts of the country predicted to grow the largest corn crop on record.

What is now being called a flash-drought in the Midwest, was exacerbated by extremely high temperatures this week. Several portions of the Corn Belt experienced triple-digit heat, baking what was already a fragile crop. The stress was evident in many areas and what was green just a week ago has turned brown as the late August heat wave stretched over much of the region.

2013 has been a year of extremes. Snowfall blanketed much of the upper Midwest in early May and late-spring rains delayed planting. Now the quick change in conditions has evaporated the surplus of water, leaving behind a drought. Burlington, Iowa, in the Hawkeye State’s southeast corner, already had the wettest spring since 1898 and likely will experience the driest summer on record since, you guessed it, 1898. Several states also are in the same dry-docked boat and are on their way to setting another weather record for the driest August.

More than half of the contiguous U.S. is in some form of drought, for the first time since early April. This week’s Drought Monitor from the University of Nebraska shows a five-point increase over last week. The parched conditions are building in the eastern Dakota’s, Minnesota, Iowa, and Missouri, while Illinois is drying out as well. Much of a region from western Nebraska through New Mexico remains in the grips of what officials are calling exceptional and extreme drought.

Tags: Burlington California Drought Monitor fire Flash Drought Iowa news predator drone Tom Medema U.S. Forest Service wildfires Yosemite National Park