Drought heats up in the Finger Lakes, raising fire hazards and trouble for farmers


Drought conditions for most of the Finger Lakes and western New York has been upgraded to “extreme drought,” leaving farmers with mounting losses and fire hazards on the rise.

About 6 percent of New York state is now under extreme drought conditions, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture Drought Monitor. The area covers much of Erie, Genesee, Wyoming, Ontario, Livingston, Seneca and Yates counties. News10 NBC meteorologist Rich Caniglia tweeted the worst hit areas are mostly south of the Thruway.

Fire officials are making people aware of increased danger during drought. On Wednesday, a hay field caught fire while being mowed at the southeast corner of Sand Hill and Shortsville roads in Manchester. Naples Fire Chief Patrick Elwell said rural areas are particularly vulnerable with open fields and farmers working with equipment that can spark fire that then spreads quickly. Parking cars on parched grass and piling mulch too close to buildings are also fire hazards, he said. Elwell warned not to let mulch dry out and to leave an area of dirt between the mulch and buildings to avoid it igniting and causing a fire.

A discarded cigarette is to blame for a mulch fire that damaged a building on Millennium Drive in Geneseo Thursday afternoon, just as pouring rain began to fall. According to the Daily Messenger's news partner News 10NBC, Geneseo Fire and Ambulance Chief Andrew Chanler said the cigarette ignited a mulch fire that smoldered and damaged the side of the building, which contains two doctors’ offices. Firefighters with Geneseo Fire and Ambulance extinguished the fire.

“The mulch smoldered a great deal, throughout about 8 inches which had been laid down over the years,” said Chanler. “It is fortunate that someone saw the smoke when they did, and that there was only damage to the building’s siding.”

Chanler also talked about mulch causing fire, especially in the summer. “Though the investigation shows that this is clearly a fire caused by discarded smoking material, mulch has a tendency to degrade and self-combust,” he said. 

Meanwhile, farmers are hurting as they try to maintain crops, fruits and vegetables.

Skip Jensen — New York State Farm Bureau field advisor for Cayuga, Ontario, Seneca, Tompkins, Wayne and Yates counties — said there is talk of possible federal disaster aid coming this way. “That would be greatly appreciated,” he said. “We appreciate all the help we can get but the real concern is will there be enough corn, silage and hay to feed the animals?”

Some farmers are driving many miles to buy feed. But it is hard to find — “because other dairy farmers are in the same boat,” Jensen said.