Wednesday, March 15, 2017


On November 28, 2016, a wildfire of unprecedented scale swept through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GSMNP) and spilled over into the surrounding community of Gatlinburg, claiming 14 lives and burning a total of 17,904 acres, and forever changing the lives of those in the greater GSMNP community. Today, spring is coming—has come. Gatlinburg is bustling. And it is clear that the ecosystem will recover smoothly, and the community, though branded with the memory of hometown disaster, will return to its position as a viable tourist destination, stronger for it.

Photo by Matt Reilly

    What began as a small 1.5-acre fire smoldering slowly in the duff—the layer of organic matter on the forest floor—atop the popular Chimney Tops on November 23, 5.5 miles from Gatlinburg, was rapidly bolstered into a raging blaze four days after Thanksgiving when winds registered up to 87 MPH ripped through the Smokies, already bone-dry due to several months of drought.

    The scene was chaotic and undoubtedly sorrowful; and the impacts on businesses, families, and livelihoods cannot be downplayed. However, despite the sensationalized portrayals of the situation that has colored people’s perceptions of what remains of the GSMNP, the reality of the impacts of the fire is hopeful.

    Of the Park’s 522,427 acres, only 11,410 acres—roughly 2 percent—were consumed by the fire. What’s more, because of the high winds that contributed to the rapid magnification of the fire, about 65 percent of the area that was consumed was only very lightly burned, resulting in burned undergrowth and the bases of trunks, but very few dead trees. The area of the Park that was burned intensely—about 1,000 acres—represents just 0.2 percent of the entire area.

    Bringing even more hope, GSMNP Management Assistant, Dana Soehn, pointed out that “The fire occurred outside of the growing season, so most vegetation was dormant. Trees and shrubs were only highly effected in about 10 percent of the burned area.” In a brief walk through the forest, adjacent to one of the most heavily burned areas, buds are becoming visible on even the smallest of saplings.

Photo by Matt Reilly

    The soil within the burn zone is relatively intact, too. “Duff layers, root mats, and seed banks are mostly intact in over 90 percent of the burn area,” said Soehn, and it shows. Daffodils, grasses, and groundcovers have emerged from the now moist ground as some of the first signs of spring.

    To ease the worries of those who value the Park for its wildlife viewing opportunities, wildlife have shown no signs of suffering. According to GSMNP Wildlife Biologist Bill Stiver, only two of an estimated 1200 black bears inhabiting the Park are known to have perished due to the fire. Many, in fact—including the majority of the black bear sows—were had already begun hibernation when the fire swept through.

Photo by Matt Reilly

    Species that prefer open woodlands—like bats, of which the Park houses 13 species, 4 of which are critically endangered within the Park—will find refuge in the newly created habitat, as will deer, which thrive around edge habitat and in new growth forests. Turkeys were observed in some of the burned areas almost immediately following the fire. A winter burn affects a stronger spring green-up and a long sightline, which provide the birds with food and security.

    The fisheries within the Park were perhaps the least effected, though 55 miles of stream were engulfed in fire. “No impacts from fire relative to nitrates, sulfates, pH, or temperature have been found,” said GSMNP Fisheries Biologist Matt Kulp, citing 20 years of previous baseline data. “There has been no significant difference in sediment in the streams, either,” said Kulp, as he released a healthy wild rainbow electroshocked from a Little Pigeon River tributary stream.

Photo by Matt Reilly

    The 31 miles of trails closed because of impacts from the fire have mostly been repaired and reopened to the public.

    Recreation, in the form of wildlife watching, fishing, and hiking, will resume in the Park this spring, providing little reason for visitors to postpone vacations and trips to the region. The community, which sees 11.3 million visitors annually, remains fully functional. In fact, record visitorship for the month of December was recorded the month following the fire.

    Ecologically speaking, wildfire is a natural event intrinsic to eastern ecosystems, and may even be interpreted as beneficial to the diversity of habitat and wildlife within the Park. What’s more, the Chimney Tops 2 wildfire will offer a unique opportunity for visitors and scientists to study and become familiar with wildfire, which has been largely avoided through management for recreation. The GSMNP is, and will continue to be, a natural treasure in the heart of the East.

    Want to help the Smokies? Go see it for yourself.    

*Originally published in The Rural Virginian

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