'Scary' drought in N.D. persists through scattered weekend moisture
BISMARCK -- Jim Diepolder says the drought gripping most of western North Dakota isn't just serious. He calls it eerie, scary even.
"People here have been seeding for close to a month now and the crop is not up," said the Willow City farmer and head of the U.S. Durum Growers Association. "It's just sitting there. The bottom line is, it's pretty scary. ...It's the driest it's been in 100 years."
Diepolder's area was the first in the state to be classified this year as being in the "extreme drought" category on the U.S. Drought Monitor kept by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
Extreme drought appeared in late January on the UNL monitor as a crimson splotch seeping down from Canada into western Bottineau County and Renville County.
The splotch has now spread like a pool of blood to cover virtually all of the western one-third of the state, with the rest of the state in lesser stages of dryness, ranging from "severe drought" to "abnormally dry."
Only Richland, Sargent and the southeast corner of Cass counties are the exception, where late-season snowstorms dropped between several inches and multiple feet of snow.
Scattered showers and late snows last week have done little to ease the dry conditions in the west, Diepolder and others say.
Jeff Knox, a farmer near Tioga, said one-third to one-half an inch fell Friday, and some areas woke to snow Saturday morning.
"That's the most we've had" this spring, he said.
But as Diepolder said, "That's no drought-breaker."
Farmers have stopped planting, he said.
"A lot of guys are parking their (seed) drills in the Mohall-Kenmare area," Diepolder said Saturday. "They're not going to seed any more until it rains."
On the plus side, he said, it has been abnormally cold, and that has kept the ground from drying out even worse.
In April, the state climatologist said the previous six months were the driest in North Dakota in the 113 years record s have been kept, with the statewide average precipitation totaling 1.59 inches or 38 percent of normal.
There's little immediate sign that conditions are going to ease, according to the National Centers for Environmental Prediction's forecast for soil moisture change in the coming week.
"The western two-thirds of the state is in desperate need of soaking rains to recharge the subsoil moisture," said state Agriculture Commissioner Roger Johnson on Friday.
Also Friday, Gov. John Hoeven declared an early-phase drought disaster in order to trigger a livestock water assistance program and the state Water Commission meets Wednesday to fund it.
Other disasters and near-disasters have come in via grass and field-residue fires, which began a month earlier than usual and is continuing. Normally, spring fire season is over in April when the countryside greens up with fresh growth, said Geremy Olson, fire planning and prevention specialist for the North Dakota Forest Service.
A month ago, a grass fire at Belcourt covering a section of land threatened a housing development, leaping state Highway 5 in multiple places, according to area residents. A Caterpillar tractor was used to plow up a firebreak to stop it from getting to houses. Dangerous, spectacular fires have also gripped residents on the edges of Minot and Mandan. Another large blaze ravaged land west of Dunseith and took out an old farmstead.
Olson said Friday there have been at "close to 400 (grass) fires that we know about" this spring statewide, burning a reported 32,000 acres. And that was before Friday's blaze in the Pembina Gorge threatened one of the states few forested areas. In all of 2007 there were 518 fires over about 34,000-38,000 acres (some 2007 reports are still coming in).
As of late Thursday, 29 of the state's 53 counties had burn bans in place.
Olson said anyone planning to burn debris, even in a county with no fire ban, needs to consider not just the weather on the day they plan to burn but also the weather forecast for the following day, when embers can be ignited and spread by strong winds in low-humidity conditions.
Janell Cole works for Forum Communications Co., which owns The Dickinson Press.