Al Bettencourt lives in Burrillville, but his one-acre vegetable plot looks like it’s part of the Sonoran Desert.
“It’s all cracked,” says the executive director of the Rhode Island Farm Bureau. “It’s too dry. We need some rain and we need it soon.”
Across the region, a virtually snowless winter has given way to one of the driest springs on record, pushing the region to the edge of drought, raising concerns among farmers and prompting government agencies to issue fire hazard warnings.
Though the National Weather Service says the region is already in a meteorological drought, Bettencourt says the state Drought Advisory Committee meets tomorrow to decide whether to declare a drought advisory. That could help adversely affected farmers obtain some government relief later this summer if conditions don’t improve.
The statistics tell much of the story. The winter of 2011-12 was one of the warmest and driest on record with below-average precipitation and snowfall, a major recharger of underground aquifers. In January precipitation was close to the normal of 3.4 inches. But February’s 3.29 inches was almost two inches below normal, and March, which averages 5.01 inches, was off by 3.7 inches, according to the weather service.
April, the month New Englanders have come to know as the one whose showers bring May flowers, has bedeviled the region with a barely measurable .17 inches of rainfall so far.
The conditions have conspired to turn woodlands and even undeveloped urban areas into tinderboxes, leading the National Weather Service to issue a “red flag warning” of critical fire conditions in Massachusetts and interior sections of Rhode Island yesterday.
Gusty winds and very low humidity, the other prevailing atmospherics of late, aren’t helping the situation. Any fires that develop in such conditions have the potential to spread rapidly. All outdoor burning whatsoever is strongly discouraged.
“We haven’t issued a burning permit for any reason in some time,” said Deputy North Smithfield Fire Chief E. Craig Beausoleil. “You throw a cigarette butt out it’ll start a fire in these conditions.”
The fact that the state forestry officials no longer man the Murray Tower on Pound Hill Road for budgetary reasons doesn’t make Beausoleil feel any more at ease. “They haven’t staffed it for twelve, fourteen years,” according to Beausoleil.
These days, the deputy chief says, it’s more likely he’ll get a first-report of smoke in his hometown from spotting towers in Mendon, Mass., miles away, or somebody on a cell phone.
“We’ve been lucky,” said Beausoleil. Despite the conditions, the only brush fire that’s popped up was a small one Monday in the Greenville Road area.
“What we need is a really good, soaking rain,” he says. “Until then the only thing you can do is stay on the alert and keep your fingers crossed.”
Woonsocket had two brush fires on Monday, including one that took two hours to extinguish, behind Imperial Packaging, near the Peters River, an area where homeless squatters are living in makeshift encampments. But Fire Chief Gary Lataille says it’s possible the fire was not the result of an errant campfire but the malicious handiwork of neighborhood youths who may be attempting to harass the homeless.
Whatever the cause, the chief is urging everyone in the city to take the weather advisories seriously. “Don’t burn outdoors and you don’t have to worry about fires spreading,” he says.
The drought is just the latest in a series of rare, extreme weather events that can be traced back for more than a year. In February 2011, after a winter in which typical between-storm snowmelts failed to materialize in relentlessly cold weather, many rooftops collapsed under the weight of an ever-deepening blanket of snow. Last August, Hurricane Irene came closer to a direct hit on Rhode Island than any hurricane in a generation. And a freak October snowstorm downed power lines and snapped trees that had yet to drop their foliage.
Some weather experts say extreme events, including drier dry spells and storms that are more moisture-laden and violent, may be part of a new normal of climate change tied to global warming.
Back in Burrillville, Bettencourt says time is running out this season for farmers to avoid running into problems, especially if they don’t have backup irrigation systems. He’s already got peas in the ground, and in the weeks ahead, he’ll be getting more of his cold weather crops in.
But Bettencourt says it’s still too soon for many farmers to call it an emergency. “They’d rather have dry weather now than too much rain. At least with dry weather you have the capacity to irrigate.”
David J. Piccirillo of Harmony Farms, in Glocester, agrees. Piccirillo, who plants about 10 acres of fruit trees and summer vegetables, says there’s still time for things to turn around before conditions become, as he puts it, “dangerous bad.”
“We’re still in April, so there’s still a chance we could get the rain we need,” he says.
Like Bettencourt, Piccirillo doesn’t have an irrigation system that’s tied into a municipal water supply. He has wells and basins on his Putnam Pike property – a complement to but no substitute for regular seasonal rainfall. “If you planted something right now you’d be doing nothing but watering,” he says. “You’d pump them dry.”
The weather service says the best chance of getting some relief in at least two weeks was to kick in last night with a slight chance of showers and thunderstorms. The odds of rainfall improve to a fifty-fifty shot by tomorrow, with a tenth to a quarter of an inch of total accumulation possible.
By Friday, it’s back to a more familiar pattern: Sunny skies and low humidity. And it will be warmer than anytime since last month’s oddball heat wave, with temperatures near 70 degrees.
Kathy Plante of the Friendly Farm in Cumberland is taking it in stride. If there’s one thing the grower of nursery stock has come to expect from the weather, it’s the unexpected.
“It’s always one challenge or another that you have to face,” she says. “The only thing you can do is pray for the best and hope Mother Nature makes up for it later.”