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Exploding hay, watering bans are latest signs of worsening drought

Hot weather has devastated agriculture; 30 percent of the corn crop is now in poor, or very poor, condition. NBC's Janet Shamlian reports.

From exploding hay bales to a sprinkler ban in Indianapolis, the Midwest and Plains states continue to be tested by a hot, dry summer.

A drought update Thursday didn't offer much hope either: 61 percent of the contiguous U.S. was listed in drought, up from 56 percent last week, according to the National Weather Service's Drought Monitor

"Anytime we have a drought maturing in mid-summer, the chances for rapid intensification will be there," Gary McManus, Oklahoma's associate state climatologist, told msnbc.com. "Even normal heat and dry conditions can speed that drought along."

More than 1,000 counties in 26 states were named natural-disaster areas on Thursday by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The move gives that designation to any county in severe drought for eight consecutive weeks, speeding up low-cost loan assistance to farmers. 

Representing a third of all U.S. counties, it's the largest ever USDA disaster declaration, the Bloomberg news service reported.

Michael Conroy / AP file

A dock extends into a dry cove at Morse Reservoir in Noblesville, Ind., on July 5. The central Indiana reservoir is down 3.5 feet from normal levels.

Besides dried up fields, farmers from Iowa to Oklahoma in recent weeks have reported hay bales catching fire through spontaneous combustion.

Near Salix, Iowa, five fire departments responded to a hay fire on Tuesday that quickly consumed a storage facility, NBC affiliate KTIV reported.

While that can happen any time there's moisture in hay mixed with heat, this summer is particularly dangerous after late spring rains provided the needed moisture in the hay.

"The chance of hay bales spontaneously combusting is higher when we’ve had a lot of rain," Nigel Collinson, director of Agrical, a major insurance adjuster, told Farmers Weekly in June as the hay baling season was in full swing.

NBC's Janet Shamlian reports from Arkansas, where severe drought has turned pasture into "desert," threatening the future of the cattle ranching industry.

In western Oklahoma, where hay bales also recently burst into flames, the threat of brush and grassland fires is greater this year than last because the state enough spring rain to allow vegetation to grow.

"The rains allowed the growth to get up pretty good, so there are a lot of troubles this year," Mike Karlin, assistant chief of the Weatherford Fire Department, told the Associated Press. "That moisture has gone and it's gotten extremely dry out. 

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"We're dealing with a situation that's fast approaching what we saw last year," he said, referring to the drought that started in 2010 and left much of the landscape cracked and dry.

In Indiana, water rationing has spread to Indianapolis. Plummeting reservoirs have led to a ban, starting Friday, on watering lawns with sprinklers. Plants, flowers and trees can still be watered with a hose.

Extreme heat in Indianapolis last week was too much for a chocolatier's air conditioning system. It reluctantly closed rather than risk having the inventory melt. WTHR's Emily Longnecker reports.

Fines start at $100, increasing up to $2,500 for repeat offenders.

"If we have some people who are solidly abusing it we're certainly going to make an example," Mayor Greg Ballard told NBC affiliate WTHR-TV

Indianapolis is going through its longest dry spell in 104 years of records, weather.com noted. Since June 1, just .09 inches of rain have fallen there, when the average is closer to 6 inches.

Nearly a third of Indiana was listed as in "extreme drought" in the latest Drought Monitor, up from 23 percent last week. Nearly all of the rest of the state is seeing either severe or moderate conditions.

In northeast Indiana, rainfall in some parts is 11 inches below normal for the last three months, according to the monitor.

In Indiana and 17 other key corn-growing states, "30 percent of the crop is now in poor or very poor condition, up from 22 percent the previous week," the report stated. "In addition, fully half of the nation’s pastures and ranges are in poor or very poor condition, up from 28 percent in mid-June.

"The hot, dry conditions have also allowed for a dramatic increase in wildfire activity since mid-June," the report noted. "During the past 3 weeks, the year-to-date acreage burned by wildfires increased from 1.1 million to 3.1 million (acres) as of this writing."

Other parts of the Midwest are rationing water as well. In Kansas, the town of Russell this week approved restrictions. So too have many towns in Illinois and Wisconsin.

Rain is forecast for some drought areas over the next week, but overall the outlook remains grim for what's the most widespread drought since 1988.

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"Unfortunately, parts of the Plains from the Texas Panhandle, Oklahoma and Kansas potentially eastward into Illinois and Indiana may see little significant rainfall over the next 5-7 days," weather.com meteorologist Jon Erdman warned in his drought post.

"Rainfall is the cure," added McManus, "but it is normally in short supply during July and August."

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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