When rain finally quelled the wildfires running rampant through the Southeastern U.S. last year, the public was breathing a collective sigh of relief while the scientific community spotted an opportunity. Fall 2016 was a wildfire event unlike anything seen in recent history — in the eastern part of the country, at least — and the blazes left behind a natural laboratory to study what happens on a burned landscape once the flames fade.
“It’s a unique opportunity, because the forested areas — especially the high northern hardwoods areas — burn very infrequently,” said Sarah Workman, associate director of the Highlands Biological Station.
For the first time in nearly a year, the Chimney Tops Trail in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is open to hikers.
The fire review process included a thorough analysis of all communications and decisions made from the time the fire began on Nov. 23, 2016, to the time it left the Great Smoky Mountains National Park at 6 p.m. Nov. 28. According to the review team, here’s how it unfolded.
Nine months after a small wildfire in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park metastasized into a deadly blaze that wreaked havoc on Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, a report reviewing the National Park Service’s decisions and actions leading up to the Nov. 28 firestorm has been released.
State charges against the two teenagers arrested in connection with November’s deadly Gatlinburg fires have been dropped, but prosecution could resume with federal charges.
What was once a wildfire became an outdoor classroom for students in Western Carolina University’s Natural Resource Conservation and Management Program this spring.
As part of a spring capstone course, 23 students studied four post-fire aspects of the forest ecosystem — forest composition, wildlife habitat, soil and water. Now, they’ve just finished compiling and analyzing the data they gleaned from the 728-acre burned area of the Dicks Creek drainage near Dillsboro.
When rains finally quelled the flames of 2016’s historic fall fire season, firefighters breathed sighs of relief and mountain residents rejoiced in the newly smokeless air, but land managers were already looking ahead to springtime, when wildfires are typically even more severe and damaging than in the fall.
At the time, the region was plunged in the most severe drought designation possible — even the days of steady rain that ended the fire season made barely a dent in it — and long-term forecasts were calling for a dry future.
When starting the hike, it’s not immediately obvious why the Chimney Tops Trail should be appointed for long-term closure. The brook is babbling, the sun is shining and the trees are towering just as one would expect of a trail in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and the results of a recent trail rehabilitation effort make for exceedingly pleasant walking.
But as the trail nears its terminus at the twin peaks of the Chimney Tops, the reason becomes abundantly clear. Its harbingers are announced with a jumble of burned branches here, an area of blackened ground there, and the sudden realization that, even on a brisk winter day when it’s hard to smell much at all, there’s a faint odor of charcoal in the air.
Did the fires hurt wildlife?
Prescribed burning is often used as a tool to benefit wildlife by regenerating their habitat, and in the case of the slowly creeping ground fires that accounted for most of the burned area, wildlife are usually able to get out of the way as flames approach.
It’s a warmer-than-average January day, the contours of the mountains visible from the highway beneath a thin covering of leafless tree branches under a half-blue sky. A U.S. Forest Service Jeep travels west on U.S. 74, bypassing Franklin and hanging a right for the winding road that leads to Wayah Bald.
The vehicle pauses for a moment as it traverses a valley framed by Wayah’s upward-reaching face. The slope is mottled with patches of darkness that could almost pass for cloud shadows.