Dry winter, warm spring make East Coast a tinderbox

(CBS News) MANORVILLE, N.Y. - The East coast is usually soggy in the spring but this year it's a tinder box. Every state that touches the Atlantic is abnormally dry or in a drought and wildfires have sprung up near Miami, Fla.

Brushfires are also burning near Roanoke, Va. and firefighters are battling a big fire on New York's Long Island. CBS correspondent Jim Axelrod reports.

The nasty wildfires whipping through Long Island stirred by 40 mph winds are not normally seen in Northeast this time of year.

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"All the ingredients were there for a real tragedy," said New York Governor Andrew Cuomo.

The "red flag" conditions that create explosive potential for fires to spread will continue to pose a growing threat for months to come.

"The conditions are right," according to Suffolk Country Fire Commissioner Joe Williams. "We've got low humidity, it's very dry, windy conditions, you can have a major fire."

Williams blames the warm, dry winter that's continued into spring. It was the hottest March on record. 8.6 degrees above average. More than 15,000 warm temperature records were broken.

Severe drought conditions that extend all the way down to Florida are creating dire challenges for firefighters like Scott Peterich of the Florida forest service.

"It went from one acre to 40 acres in a matter of about 20 minutes... so it can move very fast," explained Peterich.

Many found this year's snowless winter, which registered 20 inches below average in New York City, a blessing, but it is quickly becoming the firefighter's curse.

"We're gonna be dealing with this until we get some good rain, about two days of real good rain," said Williams.

When it comes to natural disasters, the warm winter may have consequences beyond just fires. Ocean temperatures are also warmer than usual.

Warm water strengthens hurricanes so during this summer and fall's hurricane season, when storms move up the Atlantic coast, they may end up being much stronger.

  • Jim Axelrod

    Jim Axelrod is the anchor of the Saturday edition of the "CBS Evening News" and a national correspondent for CBS News, reporting for the "CBS Evening News with Scott Pelley" and other CBS News broadcasts.