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Wild Western Weather as Corn Belt Crop Cooks

posted on September 13, 2013

U.S. consumers were more reluctant to open their wallets last month, prompting economists to speculate the economic road ahead is going to bumpy.

According to the Commerce Department, spending at retail businesses rose just 0.2 percent last month – the smallest gain in four months. Excluding the more volatile sectors of autos, gasoline and building supplies, retail sales in August increased just 0.1 percent.

Labor Department figures show the producer price index increased 0.3 percent last month after being flat in July.  When food and energy are removed – so called core PPI – the index remained unchanged.

And, as the U.S. and Russia hold discussions in Geneva aimed at getting Syria to give up its chemical weapons, the price of oil moved lower after closing at a two-year high late last week.

As the last throes of summer approach, a few fields at lower elevations are starting to reflect the coming change of seasons in the Midwest. Some of those crops have been pushed farther along by the lack of available moisture. Those dry conditions continue to persist farther west where wildfires have been blazing across thousands of acres for nearly a month. And – after soils are exposed to temperatures exceeding 1,500 degrees – the environmental impact goes beyond the visible scar of a blackened wasteland.

Wild Western Weather as Corn Belt Crop Cooks

The Wild West lived up to its name this week thanks to continued drought. Fires in California burned for the fourth consecutive week as crews tried to contain the third-largest wildfire in state history and deal with new blazes.

The Clover Fire in Shasta County has destroyed almost 70 homes. This blaze began Monday in Happy Valley, 150 miles north of Sacramento. The inferno moved at a brisk pace consuming 500 acres per hour.

The Mount Diablo fire northeast of San Francisco, was another fast moving event and residents were given just a few minute’s notice to evacuate their homes.

Jimmy Fenner, lives in evacuation zone about quarter mile from fire: "We ran out, started to pack our stuff and get ready to evacuate. By 4 or 5 pm the whole mountain was engulfed. There were just flames shooting up the mountain."

And the infamous Rim Fire that started August 17th near Yosemite, has burned nearly 400 square miles. Containment is expected late next week.

Even as crews try to contain the massive fire, 50 scientists are working to identify areas of highest risk for erosion into waterways in areas charred by the blaze. Habitat burned in a wildfire is stripped of water and soil retention abilities and often takes several years of ideal growing conditions to regain its environmental benefit.  

For the past few summers, large wildfires have burned through several regions of Colorado. This week, heavy rains flooded some of the same areas, prompting officials to call it an “extremely dangerous and life-threatening situation.”

Governor John Hickenlooper, D - Colorado: "This is completely different from the fires, and yet preparation is trying to anticipate what you really don't expect. And we have been trying to train across the state for unexpected eventualities, things that we would never expect to happen. I'm not sure that anyone laid out a scenario where Boulder County, every single county.. Got close to eight inches of rain in a 24-hour period."

Boulder County was hit the hardest, with up to six inches of rain falling over 12 hours. Flooding was reported from Colorado Spring to north of Fort Collins.

The flash floods killed at least three people, stranded motorists and made several roads impassable.

The National Weather Service says a 20-foot wall of water was reported in Left Hand Canyon near Boulder.

Dave Finn, lives near Colorado's Left Hand Creek: "I've never seen it like this. We sort of roll our eyes when they say 'you know you have to be prepared for the hundred year flood,' but here we are."

Carm Fay, lives near Colorado's Left Hand Creek: "Usually Left Hand Creek is just a trickle, they turn it off and on, you can wade across it, you can have fun it in and now as you can see it's hitting houses, it's knocked down a back fence, it knocked a door off the back of the house off already, it's really, one of our neighbors said you don't see like this but maybe every 25 years.”

It is unclear at this point if current rains will help lift that region out of drought, as much of the western United States is locked in that condition.

Over the last few weeks though, easing of the arid situation has occurred in portions of Kansas and Nebraska, other portions of the Corn Belt have not been as fortunate.

This week’s Drought Monitor from the University of Nebraska reveals arid conditions in parts of Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin, Missouri and Illinois. And just over 50 percent of the contiguous U.S. is locked in drought.

While some rain did fall over the Great Lakes region this week, much of rural America was hot again with temperatures pushing over 100 degrees, shattering long-standing records.

The “flash drought” impacted several rivers, streams and farm fields. For example, in La Crosse, Wisconsin only 2.40 inches of rain has fallen from July 1st through September 10th, breaking a record set back in 1948. But prior to the last three weeks of hot weather this summer, on average, has been cooler than normal.

Nevertheless, USDA meteorologist Brad Rippey says America could be in for a warm autumn.

Brad Rippey, USDA Meteorologist: “I really don’t think normal is in our vocabulary for this fall after what happened this summer. There’s going to be more weather extremes including the hot weather we’ve been seeing. A warm autumn on tap for parts of the country, most likely the northern Plains and parts of the interior Northwest. I think we can expect to see some pretty chilly conditions from time to time particularly in the Northeastern United States.”

Currently 54 percent of America’s corn is pegged in good to excellent condition, but Rippey says the late-maturing crop could benefit from a warmer fall.

Brad Rippey, USDA Meteorologist: “As we head into at least mid-September there is no sign of any freeze in the near future. The normal first freeze dates in the far, upper Midwest, typically late September, and the far southeastern Corn Belt in the vicinity of the Ohio Valley, normal freeze dates are mid-October. So at this point there is nothing to indicate that we have a spectacularly early freeze that could cause harm to crops.” 

Tags: Brad Rippey Colorado corn Corn Belt drought Drought Monitor Flash flood John Hickenlooper Mount Diablo news Shasta County soybeans temperature USDA weather