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Fair weather no friend to parched region

Forest fires, curbs on water use rise

Ray Coutu of the Rochester Fire Department sprayed smoldering underbrush yesterday at Blue Hills Reservation.
Ray Coutu of the Rochester Fire Department sprayed smoldering underbrush yesterday at Blue Hills Reservation. (Dominic Chavez/ Globe Staff)

Lawns across the state are turning brown, and pockets of water-deprived foliage are already erupting into bright colors in the late-summer sun. Rivers and streams are running dry. And an increasing number of fires - 59 started on Monday - have ignited woodlands throughout the region.

The near-disappearance of rainfall delivered a span of delightful vacation weather, but has forced a growing number of towns to enforce mandatory water restrictions and has left many farmers praying for relief. Authorities had to close roads and hiking trails in the Blue Hills Reservation yesterday as firefighters struggled to control a brush fire that swept across about 10 acres.

Boston received 0.66 inches of rainfall last month, 2.7 inches be low normal and the second-lowest amount for August since the state began keeping records more than a century ago. The city registered the least amount of rainfall for the month in 1883, when it received 0.39 inches.

Officials said the lack of rainfall hasn't yet amounted to a drought, which requires a sharp drop in average rainfall for three months in a row. But during the past three months, the southeastern part of the state - the area hardest hit by what officials call "abnormally dry" conditions - has had about 5 inches less rain than normal.

"We need rain, and we need it badly," said Doris Mills, who owns Noquochoke Orchards in Westport.

As she hawked apples, peaches, and other produce yesterday at the farmers' market on City Hall Plaza in Boston, Mills said: "We get a lot of moisture from the fog and the ocean, but it's not enough . . . We need one good rainstorm to bring the late apples in . . . The summer squash and zucchini is gone. It's just dried up."

Andrew Pollock, who owns Silverbrook Farm in Dartmouth, was not able yesterday to offer the corn he normally sells this time of year. "I get my corn from another farmer, and he doesn't irrigate, so today we don't have any corn," Pollock said at City Hall Plaza. "It's not maturing quickly enough."

State agricultural officials say they are fielding an increasing number of reports about the impact on recent crops, especially sweet corn, which becomes more vulnerable to earworms in the dry weather.

"Although we had a really good bloom and good fruit [earlier in the season], size may be affected by the lack of rain," said Scott Soares, acting commissioner for the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources. "We need the rain to get full development of the kernels on the corn."

Yesterday, 61 municipalities across the state had issued mandatory or voluntary water restrictions, most of them taking effect over the summer. Mandatory bans took effect in Dedham, Gloucester, Danvers, and Milford last month.

Gloucester banned all outdoor water use on Aug. 28, the first edict of its kind since 2002. Officials said the town's water filtration plant could not keep up with demand. "The main reason was that the dry weather has caused a tremendous amount of outdoor watering, and that had taxed our daily production amounts that we filter" through the facilities, said Joe Parisi, the city's director of public works.

Gloucester's water plant processes about 5 million gallons on a normal summer day, Parisi said. Between Aug. 1 and Sept. 3, the city used more than that amount on 16 days, he said. Water consumption has decreased by about 1.5 million gallons a day since the ban went into effect, Parisi said.

In Dedham, which also had not imposed water restrictions since 2002, officials have banned watering lawns more than twice a week.

"We need rainfall," said Michael Duff, executive director of the Dedham-Westwood Water District. "The levels are too low. These restrictions will remain until we have more rain."

The news isn't all bad.

The Quabbin Reservoir, which supplies water to much of the metropolitan area, remains 93.7 percent full - 2.4 percentage points less than in August 2006 but more than the previous three years during that month.

State officials issue a drought warning when the reservoir drops to 72.5 percent and a drought emergency when it hits 57.9 percent, according to Ria Convery, a spokeswoman for the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority.

The dry conditions have not affected the drinking water, but fires are charring land from the coast to the Connecticut River Valley.

David Celino, chief forest fire warden in the Bureau of Fire Control of the state Department of Conservation and Recreation, said the shortage of rainfall has been responsible for 35 to 59 new fires every day this week - up from 15 to 20 fires a day last week.

He said firefighters now have to dig deeper to stanch the flames, which ignite roots below the soil.

"The important part is that trend," Celino said. "The dryness of the vegetation and soil fuels the fires."

Fires raged yesterday in Peabody, Ashland, Douglas, and dozens of other municipalities, mainly in the eastern part of the state, Celino said.

The following roads will be closed this morning in Milton, Quincy, and Braintree: Chickatawbut Road, between Routes 28 and 37, and Wampatuck Road, between Chickatawbut Road and Bunker Hill Lane, State Police said.

Officials in Rhode Island asked residents yesterday to conserve water because the lack of rain has caused river levels to drop.

Ron Kujawski, a plant physiologist at the University of Massachusetts Extension in Amherst, a program that helps monitor the state's plant life, said dry conditions are causing many oaks, elms, and maples to shed leaves and seeds and change color earlier than usual.

"The lack of moisture in the soil means the trees are taking up less moisture and some of their photosynthetic machinery is shutting down," he said. "The premature change usually indicates trees experiencing some kind of stress. The dry conditions just exacerbate it."

But he said the vast majority of trees remain green, and autumn color should peak the same time as usual, around mid-October.

The dry end to Boston's summer is the result of a high-pressure area that has been in place above the region for most of the season, said Tom Kines, a senior meteorologist with Accuweather.com.

Rain isn't expected until Sunday, when there's a 50 percent chance of showers, according to the National Weather Service.

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report. David Abel can be reached at dabel@globe.com.

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