5 S.C. counties placed in worst drought category

Drought conditions have reached the worst level in five S.C. counties, state officials said Monday.

The state Drought Response Committee voted Monday to upgrade Greenville, Spartanburg, Oconee, Pickens and Cherokee counties to extreme drought, closely mirroring a recent call by a national drought monitoring system to upgrade the ratings.

Last month, federal officials designated parts of the five counties in the northwestern corner of the state as being in exceptional drought – the worst category in the U.S. Drought Monitor.

Officials used the national designation along with several other factors in their decision Monday, state climatologist Hope Mizzell said.

“The conditions are worse than what we had last year,” she said. “And we aren't confident that we're going to get much relief.”

Drought has dried up waterways, increased wildfire danger and threatened water-starved crops in recent months. Upgrading the drought to extreme – the highest category – could have meant mandatory water restrictions, but the committee voted against it. The group will meet again in a few weeks and may decide to restrict water use, Mizzell said.

The committee also classified 14 counties as being in severe drought.

Twenty-one counties were rated as moderate drought, while the rest of South Carolina is in incipient drought, the least severe category.

Parts of the upstate are as much as 20 inches below normal rainfall during the past 12 months, marking the driest period in more than 60 years, according to the National Weather Service.

Forestry officials say the drought has caused wildfires to increase about 40 percent.

“We have drier fuels, the fires are burning faster and burning more acreage,” said Darryl Jones, a forester with the state Forestry Commission. “More lightning fires are starting because of the drought because the fuels are so dry.”

Farmers worry the dry conditions will wipe out corn, soybean, peanut and cotton crops, drought committee member Dennis Chastain said.

“It's the worst I've ever seen,” said Chastain, who has been on the committee about 20 years.