August rainfall second lowest on record: Forest fire danger increases, mosquito population diminishes
Foliage is starting to turn early, the forest-fire danger is unseasonably high and diminishing groundwater levels are being closely watched - all because this month is ending with the second-lowest August rainfall on record.
"It's very close to being the driest I've ever seen," said Ron Aseltine, the state fire warden for Plymouth County, who on Thursday was fighting a series of brush fires that have burned in the Blue Hills this week.
On the plus side, vacationers are basking in sunny weather, the dry spell has reduced the mosquito population, and there is less ragweed to plague allergy sufferers.
But a heightened danger of forest and brush fires is the most serious result of a generally dry summer season.
When the forest fire danger increased Thursday, Whitman firefighters pulled the department's brush breaker out of a nearby storage garage and onto the front line.
"I want it ready to go," Chief Timothy Travers said.
His guide is a forest-fire danger alert issued daily by the state. fire district. On Thursday, the fire danger was high, a class 4 on a scale of 1 (low) to 5 (highest).
"It's very unusual to have class 4 today, very unusual for this month," said Travers.
August is expected to end up being the second driest August on record, according to the Blue Hills Meteorological Observatory.
The Milton-based weather observatory recorded just .62 inch of rain for August through Thursday afternoon, far below the normal August rainfall of 4.06 inches.
The weather station also reports this could be the 15th driest summer season ever and the 10th driest July-August period.
Even the rain showers predicted for the final day of August are not expected to change the standings.
Although there is a high fire danger across the state, Aseltine said it is especially high in Carver, Middleboro, Plymouth and Wareham, where pitch pine, scrub oak, huckleberry and low blueberry bushes are tinder dry.
"That seems to be where most of the fires take place and most of the potential is for large brush fires," he said.
It is also where development has occurred within forests, putting homes in the line of a potential fire.
Area residents are seeing some leaves already showing fall colors, again because of the low rainfall. That means leaves are likely to drop earlier, eliminating the canopy that shields the ground from the sun.
And many oak trees damaged in recent years by a trio of caterpillars are now dead and brittle, posing a threat to burn and even topple as firefighters battle forest fires.
The high population of yellow jackets is also linked to the lack of rainfall. Plymouth County Extension horticulturist Deborah Swanson said rain typically drowns some of the ground-nesting insects, but this year many more survived and have become active when disturbed by someone walking nearby.
It will take a long-lasting, ground-soaking rainfall to reverse conditions at this point, Aseltine said.
"It's been a number of years since there's been any forest fires," said Aseltine, who predicted a "very busy" fall fire season under current conditions.
The dry weather has also lowered the groundwater table, causing Middleboro and other towns to keep a close watch on municipal wells, said Louis Ponte of the Middleboro Water Department. "Rain would help immensely," he said.
The town's water management program, restricting automatic lawn sprinkler use, will remain in effect through Sept. 15.
Water restrictions also remain in Halifax, Holbrook, Kingston, Pembroke, Plymouth and Rockland, among other communities.
"The lack of rain has cut down on the mosquito population," said Ray Zucker, superintendent of the Plymouth County Mosquito Project.
But, he said, the same dry weather has enhanced mosquito-borne West Nile virus because those insects seek alternate breeding in containers, including catch basins.
There is good news for allergy sufferers who dread the ragweed season: the scant rainfall has inhibited the growth of ragweed.
Elaine Allegrini of The Enterprise (Brockton, Mass.) can be reached at email@example.com.