Drought has intensified in the North Carolina mountains, with two counties falling into the most severe category this week for the first time since 2008.
Cherokee and Clay counties, in the state’s westernmost tip, were classified Thursday as in exceptional drought, the highest of four stages. Twenty-eight western counties are in lesser drought stages, up from 25 a week ago.
Gov. Pat McCrory declared a state of emergency Thursday to help the state combat more than 20 active wildfires in western North Carolina prompted by the drought. More than 100 wildfires, fed by the dry conditions, have burned thousands of acres since early November. The N.C. Forest Service banned open burning in 25 western counties.
“The southeastern U.S. has been under persistent high pressure for the past few months and this has led to above-normal temperatures while suppressing rainfall,” said Rebecca Ward, climatologist for the state climate office. “The dryness in the mountains has persisted since May, and several counties are now seeing one of their top driest years based on more than 105 years of records.”
The U.S. Seasonal Drought Outlook predicts drought in the western Carolinas will persist through January.
Seven water systems in the region have ordered mandatory water conservation restrictions, but state officials say the drought has primarily affected agriculture, such as the availability of winter hay for cattle.
Mecklenburg County remains “abnormally dry,” as it has since mid-September. But Charlotte’s water supply, the Catawba River, flows from drier mountains and foothills northwest of the city. The city’s water utility asked customers last week to voluntarily reduce their water use.
Rainfall in Charlotte is more than 6 inches below normal for the year to date. The city’s most recent rain fell more than a month ago, on Oct. 8.