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Catastrophic Fire Hits Southeast Tennessee Homes and Resorts

By: Bob Henson 4:28 PM GMT on November 29, 2016

What appears to be the most damaging wildland fire to strike a Southeast U.S. community in many decades tore into the tourist mecca of Gatlinburg, Tennessee, on Monday night. The Chimney Top Fire has burned hundreds of structures in and near this much-loved city and has injured at least four people. Nearby Pigeon Forge, home of the Dollywood theme park, has also been affected by the fire, which began in the adjacent Great Smoky Mountains. At least 14,000 people were evacuated from the area, and an estimated 1000-plus people were in shelters on Tuesday morning. At 9:03 PM EST Monday night, the Sevier County Emergency Management Agency sent this message:


Figure 1. Fire erupts on the side of The Spur on Highway 441 between Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge, TN, on Monday night, November 28, 2016. In Gatlinburg, smoke and fire caused the mandatory evacuation of downtown and surrounding areas. Image credit: Jessica Tezak/Knoxville News Sentinel via AP.

Figure 2. Thick smoke from area forest fires spread over Gatlinburg, TN, at midday Monday, November 28, 2016, a few hours before fire moved into parts of town. Image credit: Brianna Paciorka/Knoxville News Sentinel via AP.

Large swaths of the hillsides surrounding downtown Gatlinburg were ravaged by the fire on Monday night, including several major hotel and resort facilities. Conflicting reports on social media, and the fluid nature of the disaster as the fire continued on Tuesday, made it hard for news organizations to determine exactly what areas had been damaged. For example, there were widespread rumors that the resort of Ober Gatlinburg was destroyed, but on Tuesday morning, Ober Gatlinburg reported on Facebook: “Our property is okay. Please keep Sevier County in your thoughts and prayers!”

“The center of Gatlinburg looks good for now," Newmansville Volunteer Fire Department Lt. Bobby Balding told the Knoxville News Sentinel on Monday night. "It's the apocalypse on both sides (of downtown)."

The southern Appalachians have endured their hottest and driest autumn on record, setting the stage for dozens of wildfires across the region that culminated in Monday’s blazes. As of Monday, 20 large fires across the Southeast, including 4 new ones, were affecting more than 130,000 acres, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. The Gatlinburg disaster occurred as winds gusted to more than 70 mph ahead of a strong cold front. The same front and upper-level system that brought the winds also delivered more than 0.50” of rain to nearby Knoxville after midnight Monday night. Intense thunderstorms will erupt from Louisiana to central Tennessee and eastern Kentucky on Tuesday afternoon, with an enhanced risk of severe weather--including the possibility of significant tornadoes--over much of Mississippi. These lightning- and wind-bearing storms may reach southeast TN by late Tuesday. Conditions should improve markedly over the next several days over much of the Southeast, thanks to the expected generous rains and cooler temperatures. However, many fires continued to burn on Tuesday, and to many residents of the Gatlinburg area, the damage has already been done. “Even with the rain that is currently falling there, the fires continue to burn and structures remain engulfed with little hope that the rainfall will bring immediate relief,” said the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency in a statement at 9 AM EST Tuesday.

Figure 3. Ranking of stations across the Southeast for the period from September 1 to November 28, 2016, in terms of temperature (left) and precipitation (right). Many locations across the region, including the Knoxville/Gatlinburg area, have seen their hottest and driest autumn on record through Monday. Enough rain may arrive over the next couple of days to keep autumn precipitation records from being set at some spots. Image credit: Southeast Regional Climate Center.

A toxic mix of fire-friendly elements
Moisture is typically plentiful across the Southeast, including Gatlinburg, which averages 56” of rain per year. Droughts here are not typically as prolonged as they are in the U.S. West. When they do strike, their impact on the lush, normally-well-watered landscape can quickly become intense. In its section on the Southeast, the U.S. National Climate Assessment noted: “The southeastern U.S. (data include Texas and Oklahoma, not Puerto Rico) leads the nation in number of wildfires, averaging 45,000 fires per year, and this number continues to increase. Increasing temperatures contribute to increased fire frequency, intensity, and size, though at some level of fire frequency, increased fire frequency would lead to decreased fire intensity.”

Figure 4. Fires along the north edge of Great Smoky Mountains National Park near Wears Valley, TN, illuminate storm clouds as photographed from the town of Seymour, about 10 miles northwest of Gatlinburg. Photo credit: Jeremy Kwasney, On Location Photography. Thanks to Julie Carles-Witt for obtaining permission.

Figure 5. Firefighter Valarie Lopez is followed by Mark Tabaez as they climb down a hill after cooling hot spots from a wildfire that burned a hillside in Clayton, GA, on November 15, 2016. Image credit: AP Photo/John Bazemore.

Making matters worse is the state of the forest in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, where fire has been largely suppressed for nearly a century. Studies led by the University of Tennessee have examined the history of fire in the forests just south of Gatlinburg within the national park. Analyses of trees that date back as far as the early 1700s show that smaller, less-intense fires triggered by lightning and/or human activity were once quite frequent, clearing out the landscape for new growth every few years. “In most areas of the park, it’s very clear when this pattern of regular fires stopped: in the early 1930s, the park began suppressing fire, and tree rings changed,” notes the National Park Service.

Decades of fire suppression allowed species that are less fire-tolerant, such as maple and hickory, to take hold. On top of this, southern pine beetles have ravaged more than 90% of native short-leaf pines in some areas over the last several decades, leaving huge stands of dead trees. (As winter temperatures grow warmer in our greenhouse-altered climate, southern pine beetles have been thriving, making it as far north as New Jersey.)

Taking stock of our future fire risks
I have fond memories of a childhood visit to Gatlinburg, and it’s painful to contemplate the agony that residents are going through. The Red Cross of East Tennessee has already called this “the worst disaster involving displaced people in our area since Hurricane Katrina.” Unfortunately, the Gatlinburg fire may be a harbinger of increased fire risk across the Southeast in the decades to come, as suggested by the U.S. National Climate Assessment. A 2015 study led by Renaud Barbero (University of Idaho) suggests that the number of week-long periods with very large fires over the southern and central Appalachians may double by the 2040s - 2060s as a result of climate change. Population growth is also adding to the region’s risk. As more people move to the fringes of towns and cities, more than half of the nation’s wildland-urban interface is now located within the Southeast.

Gatlinburg is the second catastrophic wildfire this year to strike a sizable North American community in an unexpected fashion. It follows the disastrous blaze that swept across Fort McMurray, Canada, in early May, after record-setting mid-spring temperatures close to 90°F came on the heels of a very early snowmelt. The Fort McMurray fire was the costliest disaster in Canadian history, with more than $3 billion US in damage. As I wrote in a post on that event: “We have much more to learn about exactly why and how the atmosphere is moving in directions that favor devastating fire--but for now, perhaps it’s enough simply to know that the dice are being loaded. Together with the many other threats posed by climate change, this should be more than enough motivation to get serious about emission cuts. The vast and profound effects of human-produced greenhouse gases--from intensified downpours and drought impacts to ocean acidification and sea-level rise--call for a sustained commitment to change that transcends any single disaster.”

The Knoxville News Sentinel has been providing excellent in-depth coverage of the Gatlinburg fire, including a live blog with many photos and updates. Jeff Masters will be back later today with a post on Giving Tuesday.

Bob Henson

Video 1. Above: A terrifying escape from cabins near Gatlinburg, Tennessee, on Monday night, November 28, 2016. The drivers made it through the fire unscathed. Language alert: this video has several f- and s-bombs. Video credit: @VolBlood

The views of the author are his/her own and do not necessarily represent the position of The Weather Company or its parent, IBM.