The summer season calls for all sorts of outdoor fun, including fireworks and bonfires with friends and family. When engaging in these activities, participants must be aware of the weather conditions around them. Even with the recent rain, Pennsylvania continues to be in a drought, causing a burn ban for some counties (the burn ban was recently lifted for Lancaster County).
It is important to stay informed on the weather conditions, so we sat down with Millersville University’s Director of Environmental Health and Safety, Paul Hill and Millersville’s Weather Information Center Director, Kyle Elliott, to provide us with safety tips for the summer season.
To begin, when did this drought start?
Kyle Elliott: There was a 1-2 week period of “moderate drought” in April, but the latest “moderate drought” conditions officially started during the last week of May. I do not expect there to be enough rainfall during July and August to end the drought.
For a drought to end, it requires a rain surplus over a long period of time. Predicting the severity, intensity and duration of a drought is extremely challenging. Once a region is in a drought, it often takes several weeks or months of a rainfall surplus to ease or eradicate the drought.
Despite a rainfall surplus in the past 7-10 days, Lancaster County is still considered to be in a “moderate drought,” while parts of York County and northern Maryland are in a “severe drought.
Overall, I expect near- to slightly below-average precipitation in July and August. Heat should ramp up by the middle of July, with several ‘heatwaves’ a good possibility from mid-July through the end of August. Due to the highly variable and localized nature of summertime thunderstorms, one neighborhood may experience a rainfall surplus while another just a few miles away has a rainfall deficit.
What should be known about droughts?
Droughts are based on a number of factors, including amounts of precipitation, soil moisture, surface water levels (lakes, streams, rivers) and groundwater levels. Ultimately, this means there is a need to conserve water and there is a much higher risk of brush and wildland fires.
What should people know about droughts and fireworks?
Paul Hill: According to the National Fire Protection Association, fireworks cause approximately 19,500 reported fires annually. Fireworks should be avoided during dry periods, such as the one we are currently experiencing. The sparks and flammable fuels used in fireworks of all types, including sparklers and other ground-based effects, burn at high temperatures and can easily ignite dry vegetation.
What is the risk of a fire during a drought like the one we are currently experiencing?
The United States Forest Service maintains a Wildland Fire Assessment System. Our area is currently listed in the “very high” fire danger classification and is forecasted to remain “high” until considerable rains counteract the dry conditions.
Fires spread rapidly and short-distance spotting is common. High-intensity burning may develop on slopes or in concentrations of fine fuels. Fires may become serious and their control difficult unless they are attacked successfully while small. This has been evidenced by the current fires in New Jersey and Canada, which have created significant air quality issues.
What should people do to eliminate or lessen the risk of a fire? Approximately 85% of wildfires are caused by humans. The simple answer is people should refrain from having outdoor fires, such as campfires, or burning brush and yard waste, and avoid equipment and processes that are prone to causing sparks. People should also be sure to properly discard smoking materials by not discarding them out the window or in bushes or vegetation.