-- — INDIANAPOLIS - Forget worrying about the drought killing your lawn and start worrying about wildfires.
State officials are raising alarm bells about the seriousness of the state's bone-dry conditions, likening them to the Dust Bowl years of the early 1930s.
The state's Department of Homeland Security and Department of Natural Resources have issued a "water shortage warning" across Indiana, triggering a call for voluntary conservation measures that may soon become mandatory.
At a press conference Wednesday, state and federal officials warned of water shortages, wildfires, dried up wells and reservoirs and widespread damage to farmlands and forests – all caused by a relentless drought and a continuing demand for water.
"We don't want to stand here as Chicken Little and say the sky is falling," said Homeland Security director Joe Wainscott. But it may be, if something dramatic – like a tropical storm or a massive water-conservation effort – doesn't happen soon.
Public water supply systems across the state are being asked to cut back usage by 10 to 15 percent and to update their contingency plans if the state imposes mandatory measures, as Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels warned Wednesday that he may have to do.
After months of sparse rainfall and intense heat, much of Indiana is now in a severe to extreme drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, which updates conditions weekly.
That's a dangerous place to be. Indiana State Fire Marshal Jim Greeson said there is a "90 percent chance", soon to turn into a 100 percent chance, that a smoldering cigarette flicked out of a car by a motorist would start a fire.
As a stark reminder of the danger, the Indiana Department of Transportation is putting up highway signs this week along the interstates, warning motorists to watch for wildfires. Earlier this week, the Indiana State Police were given the green light to crack down on motorists seen throwing cigarette butts out the window.