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Persisting drought conditions bring burn bans, water conservation alerts to the tri-county region

North Carolina drought conditions as of May 18, 2021.
North Carolina Drought Management Advisory Council
North Carolina drought conditions as of May 18, 2021.

As the Cape Fear region continues to see moderate drought conditions, county officials have issued burn bans and water conservation alerts. In addition, the North Carolina Forest Service has issued a ban on all open burning and has canceled all burning permits for 26 counties, including New Hanover, Pender, and Brunswick.

The N.C. Forest Service's burning ban goes into effect today, May 24, 2021. It will remain in effect until further notice.

“Our state is getting drier and hotter, and wildfires like those conditions,” says Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler.

“These conditions coming during spring wildfire season when wildfire activity and fire risks are already elevated, make this burn ban necessary to protect life and property in North Carolina.”

Under North Carolina law, the ban prohibits all open burning in the affected counties, regardless of whether a permit was previously issued. The issuance of any new permits has also been suspended until the ban is lifted. Anyone violating the burn ban faces a $100 fine, plus $183 court costs. Meanwhile, any person responsible for setting a fire may be liable for any expenses related to extinguishing the fire.

The N.C. Forest Service will continue to monitor conditions. Residents with questions regarding a specific county can contact their N.C. Forest Service county ranger, or their county fire marshal’s office.

Brunswick County Fire Marshal's Office: 910-253-2021
Brunswick County Public Utilities: 910-253-2657
New Hanover County Fire Rescue: 910-798-7420
Pender County Fire Marshal's Office: 910-259-1441

Historically observed impacts from the D1 Moderate Drought classification.
U.S. Drought Monitor
Historically observed impacts from the D1 Moderate Drought classification.

Brunswick County

According to the U.S. Drought Monitor for North Carolina, Brunswick County is experiencing moderate drought conditions in addition to a high fire danger index rating from the North Carolina Forest Service. The current and future weather forecast models indicate conditions that are not favorable to open burning.

Fire Marshal Andrew Thompson reminds residents that all burning within 100 feet of any structure is banned within the unincorporated areas of Brunswick County. An unincorporated area is an area not within a city or town’s limits. The burn ban does not apply to charcoal or gas grills, provided fire safety precautions are taken.

Meanwhile, to ensure adequate water is available for essential needs, Brunswick County has also declared a Stage 1 Water Conservation Alert effective immediately. This affects all customers of public water systems anywhere in the county.

Demand for water has exceeded 80% of the available production and distribution capacity. As Memorial Day approaches, water demands are expected to increase.

Under a Stage 1 Water Alert, water system customers are requested to make voluntary adjustments to their water usage habits to reduce peak demands. A unified application of voluntary water reductions by all water system users can help deter mandatory water restrictions.

Irrigation demands represent the bulk of non-essential water use, so a primary way that customers can reduce water usage is to limit irrigation.

Specific ways to reduce water usage, and tips for water conservation, are as follows:


  • All warm-season grasses — Bermuda, Centipede, St. Augustine, and Zoysia —will need 1.0" of water per week to not go dormant. This should be applied as 1/2-inch 2 days/week. Applying 1/2-inch will wet the soil to a depth of 8 inches; there are no grassroots deeper than 8 inches, so applying more than 1/2 inch is a waste.
  • Water your lawn at nighttime. Our humidity is high and the grass is covered with heavy dew all night long — you will run your system less time to get the 1/2 inch of water on the ground when the sun and wind are not causing 40% of what exits the spray head to evaporate. This can also save money. Do the system calibration at the same time you plan to run the system.
  • If you are starting a new lawn with sod, keep the new sod damp until the roots begin to grow into the parent soil. This normally takes a week. You can test this by pulling on a corner of the new sod. It will come up easily until the new roots enter the old soil. You will then feel resistance. When that occurs, go to the 1 inch per week cycle.
  • If you are starting a new lawn from seed, wait until the fall. Grass seed must be kept damp for 2 weeks to accommodate germination. If the seed dries out after germination begins, it will die. This requires too much water to attempt during a drought.
  • Landscape plants once established only need to be watered when they show signs of wilting. Shut the drip zones on these plants off. If they need water, the leaves will indicate so.


  • Use the following recommended irrigation schedule to even out system demands:
    • Odd address numbers: Tuesday/Thursday/Saturday
    • Even address numbers: Wednesday/Friday/Sunday
    • No irrigation: Mondays
  • Defer all non-essential water use, such as lawn irrigation, to outside the peak demand hours of 5 a.m. to 11 a.m., preferably after nightfall.
  • Do not overwater your yard. One inch of water per week in the summer will keep most types of grass healthy. To determine how long you need to run your sprinkler to provide 1-inch of water, place straight-edged cans at different distances from your sprinkler, and time how long it takes to fill an average of 1-inch of water in each can. Water occasionally but deeply to encourage deeper rooting that makes the grass more drought/heat tolerant.
  • Install rain shut-off devices on automatic sprinkler systems.
  • Do not water pavement and impervious surfaces.
  • Limit lawn watering to that necessary for plant survival.
  • Use drip irrigation systems in shrubbery beds and around trees to prevent water loss through evaporation.
  • Use abundant mulch around trees and shrubs to retain moisture.
  • Plant drought-tolerant grasses, trees, and plants.
  • Adjust mower height to a higher setting to retain moisture.

Household Water Use

  • Limit the use of clothes washers and dishwashers and when used, operate fully loaded. Operate dishwashers outside of the peak demand hours of 5 a.m. to 11 a.m., preferably after nightfall.
  • Limit vehicle washing to a minimum. Use commercial car washes that recycle water.
  • Use shower for bathing rather than bathtubs, and limit showers to no more than five minutes.
  • Inspect and repair all faulty and defective parts of faucets and toilets. Pay attention to dripping sounds.
  • Do not leave faucets running while shaving, brushing teeth, rinsing, or preparing food.
  • Install water-saving showerheads and other water conservation devices, and install water-saving devices in toilets such as early closing flappers.
  • Limit hours of water-cooled air conditioners.
  • Keep drinking water in a container in the refrigerator instead of running water from a faucet until it is cool.
  • Fill or top off swimming pools only from dusk until dawn, and cover pool and spas when not in use to prevent evaporation.
  • Use disposable and biodegradable dishes where possible.

The Stage 1 Water Conservation Alert does not affect the use of private groundwater wells or those using highly treated reclaimed wastewater. St. James, Winding River, Sea Trail, and Sandpiper Bay golf courses use reclaimed water. Other golf courses use wells and ponds for irrigation.

Residents will be notified if any other conservation measures are needed and when conditions dictate that restrictions are no longer required.

Pender County

Extreme dry conditions across Pender County have also resulted in a burn ban.

“Pender County has seen a rise in the number of outside fires that are requiring extensive manpower and equipment for containment,” said Tommy Batson, Pender County Emergency Manager.

“The area has received little, to no rainfall in the past few weeks. Additionally, the forecasted highs this week are expected in the 90s with no rain in sight.”

During the past two weeks — as warmer, drier weather patterns have continued across southeastern North Carolina — the fire danger has grown higher, and in some cases extreme, especially in the coastal counties.

The chance for stronger winds and very low humidity does not help for fire control operations.

The citizens of Pender County are urged to do everything possible to minimize the risk of fire during this period. This restriction shall extend outward from all residential structures 100 feet. The proclamation does not prohibit outdoor charcoal or gas grills, provided precautions are taken to prevent fire from escaping those appliances.

Sitting around a fire pit is fun, but residents are urged to make sure fires are completely extinguished.

“Never leave a fire unattended,” said Batson. “In drought conditions, sparks can easily lead to wildfires. Douse the embers with water before walking away from an outdoor wood fire.”

Water conservation is the next concern during a drought.

“We urge the public to conserve water wisely,” said Kenny Keel, Pender County Utilities Director. “By utilizing small practices, such as turning off the water while brushing your teeth or shaving and repairing leaking faucets, you can reduce water usage.”

According to The Water Project, lawns and gardens require only .02 inches of water per day during warm weather.

“Water lawns every three to five days rather than for short periods every day,” Keel suggests. “Never overwater. This damages plants and our soils do not store extra water.”

New Hanover County

The Cape Fear Public Utility Authority has issued a voluntary water conservation advisory.

According to CFPUA, "To save water during irrigation, CFPUA recommends that customers irrigate only between midnight and 6 a.m. and on the following days, according to the street address:

  • Mondays: No watering.
  • Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays: Homes with odd-numbered addresses (e.g., 201 Main St.) may irrigate.
  • Wednesdays, Fridays, and Sundays: Homes with even-numbered addresses (e.g., 202 Main St.) may irrigate.

You can find more information from CFPUA here.

A burning ban has also been issued for unincorporated areas of New Hanover County, due to high heat and drought conditions, which increases the risk of fire emergencies.

The City of Wilmington and the towns of Carolina, Kure, and Wrightsville Beach each have their own restrictions on open burning, and this burning ban only applies to the unincorporated areas of New Hanover County.

“The lack of rain and high temperatures we’ve experienced is expected to continue for the time being, and these conditions increase the risk of grass and wood fires and add significant challenges to fire containment,” said New Hanover County Fire Rescue Deputy Chief and Fire Marshal Frank Meyers.

“The burning ban issued today is for the safety and security of residents and visitors to New Hanover County, and will be in effect until conditions change.”

The burning ban applies to open burning, including burning leaves, branches, or other plant material, as well as campfires and fire pits. The burning ban does not include fires ignited and maintained within a container designed for the purpose of cooking.

Residents are urged to exercise extreme caution when disposing of charcoal used for cooking and ensure that the charcoal has been thoroughly saturated with water or allowed to remain in a non-combustible container until all the heat is gone prior to disposal.

Additionally, residents and visitors should always practice extreme caution when disposing of cigarettes and other smoking material outdoors, and make sure they are completely extinguished prior to disposal

In all cases, burning trash, lumber, tires, newspapers, plastics, or another non-vegetative material is illegal.

Frequently Asked Questions

The N.C. Forest Service has provided a list of frequently asked questions and answers regarding burn bans and drought conditions.

Q: What is open burning?

A: Open burning includes burning leaves, branches, or other plant material. In all cases, burning trash, lumber, tires, newspapers, plastics or other nonvegetative material is illegal.

Q: May I still use my grill or barbecue?

A: Yes, if no other local ordinances prohibit their use.

Q: How should I report a wildfire?

A: Call 911 to report a wildfire.

Q: How should I report a person who intentionally starts a wildfire?

A: Call 911 to report a wildfire.

Q: My local fire marshal has also issued a burn ban for my county. What does this mean?

A: The burn ban issued by the N.C. Forest Service does not apply to a fire within 100 feet of an occupied dwelling. Local government agencies have jurisdiction over open burning within 100 feet of an occupied dwelling. The N.C. Forest Service has advised county fire marshals of the burning ban and has asked for their consideration of also implementing a burning ban.

If a fire within a 100-foot area of a dwelling escapes containment, a North Carolina forest ranger may take reasonable steps to extinguish or control it. The person is responsible for any expenses related to extinguishing the fire.

Q: Are there other instances that impact open burning?

A: Local ordinances and air quality regulations may impact open burning. For instance, outdoor burning is prohibited in areas covered by Code Orange or Code Red air quality forecasts.

Q: Can I have a campfire when I go camping?

A: Campfires would be considered open burning and are not exempt from the burn ban. During a burn ban, portable gas stoves or grills are alternate methods for cooking food while camping.

Q: What can I do to protect my house against the risk of wildfire?

A: Learn about wildfire risk assessments and preparedness and prevention plans on the N.C. Forest Service website.