When wildfires began to occur around mid-October and greatly increased in November, I saw right away that fires were behaving differently from what we were used to seeing. They were burning hotter and were harder to control. And then the fire in Gatlinburg happened and I witnessed fire behavior I’d never seen before in my 35 years of dealing with wildfire. It was off the chart.
The reason for the unusual fire behavior this fall is no real surprise, being primarily due to the extended drought of the past 2 years, especially the past four months. It kept the surface leaves very dried out so that they were easy to ignite from just a little heat from a burning ember that might float across containment lines. The forest soil’s duff layer, made up of semi-decayed leaves, organic matter, and small roots, normally does not burn. This year it did, allowing smoldering fire to creep across containment lines. Larger fuels such as downed logs and large branches were so dry that they would often burn for days, throwing sparks that could cross containment lines. Standing dead trees (we call them snags) were also more prone to burn and throw sparks, or worse, fall across containment lines and endanger fire fighters. Live trees were even falling because their roots were weakened by the burning duff layer mentioned earlier. These conditions, along with above average arson activity, resulted in numerous large fire fires across many counties.
So take all these conditions and throw in 40 mile an hour winds gusting to 80, and the result was the extreme fire behavior that devastated Gatlinburg on November 28. It moved four miles from the Chimney Tops area of the park to the southern edge of the city in just a few hours. The high winds caused fire to spot from ridge to ridge. As winds increased knee high fire became a wall of fire that consumed everything in its path. It blew past safety lines constructed by state Forestry crews to protect houses like they weren’t there…there was simply no stopping it. When houses, cabins, and other structures began to catch fire along the cities edge, they would become completely engulfed in minutes and greatly added to the fire’s intensity, throwing up large burning embers that rained down on the city. Cabins built close together in the hills and hollows surrounding Gatlinburg were catching each other on fire. Power lines were downed by falling trees, which also sparked new fires. All the components for a perfect fire storm were in place, and the result was the destruction you saw played out in the media.
At this point I usually have some sort of catchy way to summarize the article. This time I got nothing. What happened at Gatlinburg was horrific. I can only say that nature occasionally shows she’s not be as tame as is often perceived, and if you choose to live in the woods you’ve got to figure out how to deal with wildfire. For information on that contact your local forestry agency and ask about the Firewise program.