For years, Henri Grissino-Mayer warned that Gatlinburg, Tennessee, was “made to burn.”
The surrounding Great Smoky Mountains National Forest was overstocked with fuel and all of Gatlinburg’s homes and tourist cabins were made of wood, the professor warned. If a wildfire reached the surrounding forests, and then the town, there would be a disaster.
For years, Grissino-Mayer was ridiculed and scorned.
Then came the last week of November 2016 and the Chimney Tops 2 inferno.
“Everything just burned to the ground,” he said, “because these homes and neighborhoods are so packed together.
“I call them fire dominoes because as a fire breaks out, it just goes from one structure to the next. And that’s exactly what happened. I’ve made some harsh statements, and I’ve received some awful comments about that. People don’t want to hear that, but they need to face reality. They don’t know about the environment that they’re living in.”
And Gatlinburg is by no means the only community at risk.
Whether you look east or west, forests all across the United States face the same danger, said Grissino-Mayer, a professor in the University of Tennessee’s Department of Geography.
The intentional exclusion of fire from the nation’s forests has brought about increasingly intense wildfire seasons, and with them widespread destruction and the deaths of both firefighters and civilians.
Grissino-Mayer’s primary area of research involves the history of fire and the examination of fire scars on and in trees. He earned a doctorate in 1995 at the University of Arizona, where he worked with Tom Swetnam, then director of the university’s Laboratory of Tree Ring Research.
Now director of the University of Tennessee’s Laboratory of Tree Ring Science, Grissino-Mayer has conducted fire-scar research in the southern Appalachians for about 15 years.
“The story that we’ve learned about wildfires in the southern Appalachians is very similar (to that of many areas of the western United States),” he said. “Fires were very common here in the late 1600s, all through the 1700s, 1800s and into the early 1900s, until about 1935 or so when fires just stopped.
“So we have a problem, and it’s a problem similar to what exists in the western U.S.”
The problem is that the lack of fire — due to the near extirpation of Native Americans, along with effective fire suppression, livestock grazing, and other factors — has allowed forests to become overcrowded with trees and brush.
With the establishment of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the descendants of European settlers, who had long used fire to clear land for agriculture and for maintaining wildlife habitat, as had the Indians before them, were evicted from the park.
“You take out all of those ignition sources, and you start putting out any fires that do occur, and you’ve got a situation, and that situation is 80 years of fuels built up,” said Grissino-Mayer. “That means that we have continuous fuels horizontally across the landscape all through the national park, all the way through to the wildland-urban interface (outside the park).
“Not only do we have a higher density of trees and shrubs and forest litter, but we also have continuous fuels vertically. I mean, these forests are so dense from the ground up to the tops of their crowns. And with 80 years of fire suppression, we’ve had an explosive increase in the population of ericaceous shrubs—rhododendron and mountain laurel, which had always been kept in check with repeated fires. So we had a continuous fuel complex all the way from Chimney Tops down to Gatlinburg.”
Thus his many years of warning about the danger looming just outside, and within, the city limits.
“All the houses, all the cabins, the condos, the rentals, the businesses. … It’s rustic, it’s beautiful,” Grissino-Mayer said. “We love wood—it screams ‘mountain environment.’ “
Numerous other communities in wildland-urban interface zones in southeastern Tennessee are at a high risk of catastrophic wildfire, said Grissino-Mayer, adding that he hopes the Chimney Tops 2 Fire serves as a wake-up call.
“That’s what I’m trying to do here,” he said. “People don’t know the history of the forests that they’re living in. I do. This is what I do in my research, and I’m trying to help. Local people have said that fires are not common here.
“But before 1934, fires were occurring about every seven years, and they were widespread. Many of them were much larger than what happened [in the Chimney Tops 2 Fire], but with repeated burning, the fires were low-intensity, ground-hugging, forest-maintaining, nutrient-cycling burns. But now, I’m just staggered by the amount of fuel that has built up, and the continuity of those fuels.”
This story originally appeared in The Forestry Source, a publication of the Society of American Foresters, and is republished with their permission.