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Severe Drought Now Covers Most Of New Hampshire, Extending Wildfire Risk

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Low water levels are seen in the Souhegan River this week as New Hampshire endures a severe drought.

New Hampshire’s drought is not expected to improve any time soon, and officials say it’s continuing to create prime conditions for possible wildfires.

Seventy-two percent of New Hampshire is now in a severe drought, with moderate drought in the southwestern and far northern part of the state. The drought also stretches across New England, with extreme conditions in far northern Maine and on New England’s south coast.

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New Hampshire’s Department of Environmental Services says more than 150 local water systems and towns now have outdoor water use restrictions in place. More than 100 of those rules are mandatory, meaning violators could lose water service.

Credit Maine Forest Rangers / Twitter
Maine is also experiencing severe drought. The state's forest rangers posted this photo of low water levels in a stream used to fight a recent fire in Chesuncook, near Mt. Katahdin.

The lack of substantial rainfall since May, following a winter of low snowpack, has dried out topsoil, leaf litter and vegetation across the state, setting the stage for possible forest fires.

Speaking on NHPR’s The Exchange Friday, state Forest Ranger Capt. Douglas Miner said there have only been small, scattered fires so far this year – but that could change in the coming weeks.

"The long-term forecast, September through October, looks like above-normal temperatures, and then September through November looks like below-normal [precipitation] is going to continue,” Miner said. “So… so far so good, but the future is definitely concerning, with the drought being a huge factor here.”

These mild fall conditions are in line with trends driven by climate change -- as was this summer, one of the warmest and driest on record in much of the region.

Even with quick action to decrease greenhouse emissions, scientists say New Hampshire and New England are set to see heavier, more sporadic patterns of precipitation, which doesn't always effectively recharge groundwater and can lead to drought -- and potential fires -- between rains.

New Hampshire’s last major wildfire was in October 2017. The Dilly Cliff Fire in North Woodstock burned across the Appalachian Trail and lasted more than a month, following another severe drought and the hottest year ever recorded worldwide, in 2016.

The 2016-17 drought was more concentrated on the Seacoast but covered less of the state overall than the current conditions do.

Miner says drought conditions also precipitated major fires that scorched tens of thousands of acres in New Hampshire and Maine, including on Mount Desert Island, in October of 1947.

Annie has covered the environment, energy, climate change and the Seacoast region for NHPR since 2017. She leads the newsroom's climate reporting project, By Degrees.
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