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A look back at the Nov. 28, 2016, wildfire that devastated the Gatlinburg area. Don Jacobs

For nearly a decade, Dr. Henri Grissino-Mayer has warned of megafires consuming communities along the boundaries of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

“This is the greatest concentration of people in the wildland-urban interface in the nation,” the University of Tennessee professor said.

“We are ground zero.”

His outcry was prompted by the severe drought of 2008, which persisted for two years.

As director of the UT Laboratory on Tree Ring Science, Grissino-Mayer knew early settlers and native Americans regularly burned the area now deemed the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. For a healthy forest, attractive to game and bountiful berry patches, humans for centuries burned the mountains.

Whether started by lightning or people, tree rings recorded 13 fires between 1825 and 1934, he said. Those fires in what would become the National Park consumed fuel collecting on the forest floor.

Grissino-Mayer has proof of those fires hanging from the walls of his office. Slices of trees an inch or so thick show extensive fires every seven to 10 years, he said.

“I still maintain the Smokies are called that because of the constant fires in the mountains,” the professor said.

“Now we have 80 years of fuel built up on our National Park.”

Taking message to the public

Grissino-Mayer took his message about the danger of megafires gorged on decades of fuel ravaging populated areas directly to those endangered communities. On May 9, he addressed the monthly meeting of the Gatlinburg City Commission.

“There was no reaction,” he said. “I don’t know if my message was received.”

 

The professor was allocated the same three minutes the commissioners provide any speaker. No one invited him to stay afterward for further discussions. Officials didn’t ask if they could contact him in the future.

“I was talking about things they didn’t want to hear, things that don’t fit in with their tourism message,” the professor of dendrology said.

Grissino-Mayer said he will continue taking his warning message to Gatlinburg City Commission meetings

“I want to get this information out to the public and to the commissioners,” he said.

Members of the Gatlinburg Wildfire Survivors group contacted Grissino-Mayer to learn about the issues of wildfire.

“They wanted to know about the environment in which they live,” he said.

Next up, mudslides

Grissino-Mayer in May took a friend from Texas A&M University on a tour of the wildfire-razed sections of Gatlinburg.

After visiting Chalet Village and Baskins Creek, the professors came away certain potentially deadly mudslides will afflict the area.

“There’s nothing holding those slopes up there,” Grissino-Mayer said. “With all the dead trees up there, those slopes are coming down.”

The professor said to the untrained eye, trees along slopes now bearing foliage would seem alive. But many of the trees, he said are dead.

The roots that would hold firm steep slopes during heavy rains are decaying under the soil as leaves sprout along branches. The leaves are the result of food stored in the trees, he said.

“Those slopes are going to go and take those million dollar houses with them and just cover The Spur,” Grissino Mayer said. “Not a little dirt, but cover The Spur.”

‘We need to do better’

Grissino-Mayer said he anticipates the U.S. Forestry Service will increase the acreage it burns annually to combat fuel accumulation.

“The National Park, their hands are tied,” he said. “They can’t have smoke because of the health issues and the tourism.”

With 11.31 million visitors to the National Park last year, the attraction records twice the attendance of any other park in the nation.

“This is a unique situation we have here,” Grissino-Mayer said.

With 520,000 acres in two states, authorities would have to conduct prescribed burns on 52,000 acres each year to keep the forest vibrant.

 

The economics of tourism and the influx of tax dollars from those visitors each year to the National Park don’t mesh with burning thousands of acres annually in the park.

Before 1988, policy mandated officials quickly extinguish any fires on federal property. Smokey the Bear alerted everyone they should prevent fires.

But that year authorities got a harsh reminder about the beneficial results of forest fires. A fire erupted in Yellowstone National Park that consumed 793,880 acres – 36 percent – of the park. The flames were fed by huge amounts of debris that stymied attempts to halt the flames’ march.  

Officials realized forests floors had accumulated that fed flames into uncontrollable megafires.

Communities learn to live with nature

Since then, communities in the western states, Virginia, Pennsylvania and North and South Carolina have embraced the concept fire is a natural part of healthy forests.

To accommodate the need for beneficial fires, communities adopted Firewise or Fireadapted policies or strict building codes. Homes can’t be built atop each other on slopes, residences are made of concrete and roofs are metal or tile.

 

Some small communities, such as Cobbly Knob and Top of the World voluntarily implemented policies to discourage the spread of fire. Officials in Sevier and Blount counties, despite experiencing fires that destroy a dozen cabins at a time, have made no effort to restrict building codes.

“The county commissioners in Sevier County need to rethink their building codes,” Grissino-Mayer said. He agrees, however, fire-resistant homes are more expensive to build.

The professor has a name for those mountainsides displaying one cabin above another in sequence from the base to the top of the mountain.

“It’s what I call fire dominoes,” he said.

‘My next prediction is Pigeon Forge’

Whether through restrictive building codes, wider acceptance of beneficial fires sending smoke into populated areas or firefighters and homeowners working together to reduce wildfire fuel in the community, Grissino-Mayer said “something has to give.”

“This problem will just keep accelerating until Mother Nature says, ‘It’s time to burn,’ and we’re going to see megafires like they’ve had in Yellowstone,” he said.

“That’s exactly what we have in Gatlinburg. It’s going to burn now or it’s going to burn later.

“This has to be a wakeup call. If it can happen in Gatlinburg, it can happen in your community.

“My next prediction is Pigeon Forge. Pigeon Forge dodged the bullet. If the rains hadn’t come (on Nov. 28-29), Pigeon Forge would have been toast.

“Pigeon Forge is a community just waiting to burn.”