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Rhode Island is experiencing an ‘extreme' drought for the first time in decades

About 100 wildfires have burned 77 acres amid conditions so dry that even lawn mowers are sparking fires

The U.S. Drought Monitor shows that most of Rhode Island is facing "extreme" drought conditions.
The U.S. Drought Monitor shows that most of Rhode Island is facing "extreme" drought conditions.U.S. Drought Monitor

PROVIDENCE — How dry is it in Rhode Island?

It’s so dry that lawn mowers are sparking wildfires.

It’s so dry that embers from campfires are igniting dry leaves and pine needles.

It’s so dry that state officials are worried that even a trailer chain dragging on the ground could spark a blaze.

“It’s dry enough that we are worried about western wildfire ignition sources such as chains and lawn mowers,” said Olney Knight, forest fire program coordinator for the state Department of Environmental Management. “These are not normal ignition sources for southern New England.”

For the first time in at least 20 years, most of Rhode Island finds itself in “extreme" drought conditions, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor website. The Drought Monitor map, which is released every Thursday, shows Rhode Island has been in the red zone of extreme drought for two weeks now.

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The designation means that crop loss is widespread, Christmas tree farms are stressed, and wells are running dry.

The state has had about 100 wildfires so far this year. Those fires have burned 77 acres, threatened 20 residences, imperiled 16 outbuildings and sheds, damaged a couple of buildings, and led to a few injuries but no deaths. Knight said those stats are above average.

The U.S. Drought Monitor uses five classifications: abnormally dry, moderate, severe, extreme, and exceptional. Rhode Island has never seen “exceptional” drought conditions.

Launched in 1999, the Drought Monitor is produced by the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Kathleen M. Crawley, acting general manager of the Rhode Island Water Resources Board, recalled that Rhode Island saw “severe" drought conditions in 2016, but she said the state has not had “extreme" drought conditions in many years.

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The drought is taking a toll on Rhode Island agriculture, Crawley said, citing a recent report titled “small potatoes, no hay.” Also, stream flows are way down, and total rainfall levels are 9 inches below the target for this time of year, she said.

The Drought Steering Committee, which falls under the purview of the Water Resources Board, met on Sept. 10 with federal, state, and local experts to assess four indicators: precipitation, the Palmer Drought Severity Index, stream flow, and groundwater. At that meeting, the committee concluded that the data supported a drought advisory.

On Sept. 17, Governor Gina M. Raimondo issued a drought advisory, encouraging residents and businesses to identify their water supplier and watch for any water restrictions.

“I also want to remind Rhode Islanders to be considerate of their water usage, because we all play a role in our state’s water conservation efforts,” she said.

If conditions worsen, the governor could declare a drought “watch,” followed by a “warning,” and finally an “emergency.”

Meredith Brady, associate director of the state Division of Statewide Planning, said the Water Resources Board is monitoring the drought conditions with an eye on the long-term impacts on the state’s water supply.

But in the short term, people can take steps to cut back on water use, such as avoiding extended cycles on washing machines, and remembering that the average lawn requires just an inch of water per week.

Meanwhile, some municipalities are taking steps to conserve water. In Warwick, for example, Mayor Joseph J. Solomon called for residents and businesses to conserve water.

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“This has truly been the year of all issues,” Solomon said. “We are currently experiencing drought conditions, which have been caused by higher than average temperatures combined with less rain than usual.”

The Warwick Water Division asked customers to follow an odd/even watering schedule (if your address ends in an odd number, you may water on odd-numbered calendar days).

The city also urged residents to water lawns and gardens in the morning instead of during the warmest part of the day to minimize evaporation. And it urged residents to sweep their driveways and sidewalks rather than hosing them down.

Knight urged Rhode Islanders to avoid all outdoor burning if possible. He suggested raking leaves away from the base of homes and removing leaves from gutters. And he said families should make plans for evacuating their house in case of a fire.


Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at edward.fitzpatrick@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @FitzProv.