Smokies wildfires more common in years to come, experts say

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GATLINBURG, Tenn. (WVLT) — Three years ago this month, fires raced through Gatlinburg and near Townsend. Driven by wind and fed by dry brush, the fires killed 14 people. They also slowed tourism, made national news and hurt air quality.

Wildfires devastated Sevier County in 2016 / Source: WVLT News

Deep inside a 29-chapter federal climate report there is troubling news about our treasured mountains. Read the full report here.

Natural wildfires in the Smokies could nearly double in the coming years, and fire season will become longer and more intense. For the people that call the hills home, 2016 was already bad enough.

"Worst thing, yes sir. Without a shadow of a doubt," Randy Watson, a business owner in the Smokies, said.

Randy Watson has worked in the Smokies for 42 years. After the fire, it was a total rebuild.

Experts said fires like those will become more common in years to come. The southeastern U.S. could see an increase of about 35 percent of lands being burnt.

Scientists in the National Climate Assessment said it's not just larger fires.

"Longer fire seasons are expected," Rob Addington with the Nature Conservancy said.

Dr. Peter Thornton studies fires and forests at Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

"All the factors that lead to a fire start are actually increasing," Dr. Thornton said.

"If you are just looking at lightning-started fires, you might say that over the next 50 years or so, you could double the frequency."

The ridges above Townsend and Walland lit up that November evening.

"That night, with the high winds, that night we actually had six fires of our own," Don Stallions said.

Townsend Fire Chief Don Stallions radioed his team in, not knowing what they'd find in the dark. Many volunteers left their families anxiously waiting.

"That's tough," Stallions said. "That's tough to go out and respond and help other people' s families, while you know that your family is in danger as well."

Most had never seen any blaze like this.

"And that's in part because of our more extreme weather that we are experiencing," Dr. Thornton said

A drought in 2016 turned the Smokies into a tinderbox. This year we've gone from flood to drought - and back to normal again.

"Periods of extreme wetness ... interspersed with periods of mild to severe drought," Paul Super said.

The National Park Service's Paul Super is witnessing that pattern repeated in the Smokies. The science said the southeastern mountains will swing from too much to too little water. That's not all.

"The frequency of lightning is likely to increase," Dr. Thornton said. "The frequency of intense heat during the summer is likely to increase."

Dr. Jeff Prestemon, a forest economist, with the USDA said, "Generally fires are getting bigger."

"There's still room for some very bad catastrophic fires that can harm people. We saw that in Gatlinburg obviously," the USDA's Jeff Prestemon said.

Wildland fires begin one of two ways. The first is natural: from lightning or from wind taking down power lines. The second: they start from people, on accident and, in some cases, on purpose.

"In the southern united states, a large share human-ignited fires are arson fires," Dr. Prestemon said.

Dr. Jeff Prestemon is a forest economist for the USDA in Raleigh.

"And arson fires are also brought down by law enforcement efforts" Dr. Prestemon said.

He believes prosecuting arsonists could deter future fires from being purposefully set and maybe even enough to balance out lightning-started blazes.

As recent lawsuits show, many view forest management as the biggest issue.

"The accumulation of a lot of different, more fuels than would have normally been in a lot of these places," Dr. Thornton said.

That dry brush can cause a fire to grow faster.

"It can change in a minute with the slope, with the vegetation, with the weather if the wind picks up," Stallions said.

"We know that fire is fairly common in the drier, western part of the park," Super said.

What can combat this?

"Tools like prescribed fires are really important," Rob Addington said.

Dr. Thornton said those are nothing new. There are records that the Native Americans were setting them hundreds of years ago.

"I mean, fire is natural. These mountains have always burned and they always will. It's part of the ecosystem," Stallions said.

Rob Addington said they are hard to organize in our mountains, where federal land sits next to private acreage.

"We're losing forests in the south," Addington said.

These experts also worry about smoke ruining air quality and hitting tourism. But the news isn't all dire.

"There actually has been a big burst of seedlings," Super said.

Inside the park...

"Certainly the Smokies is open for business," Paul Super said.

And in town.

"We're still here and now we are thriving. We're blessed," Randy Watson said.

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