Christin Chandler was at work at Sugarlands Distilling Co. in downtown Gatlinburg, Tennessee, on Nov. 28 when she noticed that the sky had taken on an unnatural orange glow. Outside, the smoke was so thick she couldn’t see oncoming traffic. The 34-year-old, who lives in Knoxville and commutes an hour to work every day, knew wildfires had been popping up in the surrounding forests for weeks, but something seemed different about this one. So she got out of town. “I didn’t realize how quickly it would spread,” Chandler said.
The wildfire started Nov. 23 on Chimney Tops mountain in Great Smoky Mountains National Park and traveled with the wind to the city several miles away. By the time Chandler returned a week later, the mountainside behind her office, and all the houses on it, were destroyed. The local Jeep rental company was “burnt to a crisp,” she said, with only frames of vehicles left standing. Her friend’s apartment building was rubble. She heard stories about people, unable to drive because of down power lines and smoke, running out of town. “It was haunting.”
As of Wednesday, the Chimney Tops 2 fire had killed 14 people, forced as many as 14,000 to evacuate and damaged more than 1,700 structures, including many homes, tourist attractions and resorts in Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge. The blaze has scorched more than 17,000 acres and was 82 percent contained as of Thursday, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.
The Gatlinburg fire is the deadliest of many that have torn through the southern U.S.1 this fall. As of this week, four large wildfires still burned in the region. According to the Forest Service, wildfires have scorched more than 1.4 million acres in the South so far this year — more than double the total in 2015. The Washington Post reported Wednesday that two juveniles had been charged with aggravated arson in the Gatlinburg fire. Most wildfires are caused by people; according to the National Park Service, humans ignite as many as 90 percent of them.
Fueled by possible signals of climate change such as widespread drought and record-setting heat waves, this wildfire season may be a sign of things to come for the Southeast, which is densely populated and, in some areas, less accustomed to dealing with so many vicious fires. “The Southeast has had droughts and a significant amount of wildfires, but [this year] is significantly more than average,” said Jeff Prestemon, project leader of the forestry sciences lab at the Forest Service’s Southern Research Station. “We can’t attribute a particular event to climate change, but we may have more of these events in the future.”
The dry, hot conditions in the region have been building since early this year. The U.S. Drought Monitor shows that 24.2 million people in its Southeast region live in drought-affected areas, in addition to the millions living in drought in Louisiana, Tennessee, Kentucky, Arkansas and Mississippi.2 According to the Southeast Regional Climate Center, the interior Southeast has received less than 15 inches of rainfall since the spring; depending on the area, that’s 30 percent to 70 percent of the normal precipitation recorded this time of year, based on data from 2002 to 2015. The Southern Appalachian region, stretching from Virginia to Kentucky to Mississippi, was especially dry, and severe drought conditions were declared in most of Alabama, half of Georgia, and chunks of North and South Carolina, according to the October regional climate center report.
Much of the Southeast’s rainfall typically comes from hurricanes and tropical storms, but the precipitation from those mostly hugged the coast this year, said Jordan McLeod, regional climatologist at the climate center. Even Hurricane Matthew, though devastating for North Carolina’s coastal areas, didn’t send enough precipitation to inland states to end the drought, McLeod said.
The region may not be in for a reprieve anytime soon. The summer season is typically the wettest period of the year for the Southeast, especially in the Appalachian Mountains, McLeod said, while fall is the driest. But with drier conditions expected this winter because of La Niña — a phenomenon in which cooler ocean conditions affect weather patterns — he said that further drought conditions “could be worrisome.”
This year is also on track to be the hottest on record globally, and the Southeast felt heat waves well into fall. From June through November, cities including Greenville, North Carolina; Huntsville, Alabama; and Atlanta had their warmest six-month period in history, according to Southeast Regional Climate Center data. “That signal is very consistent with climate change,” McLeod said.
The drought and its effects have been an adjustment for several states. According to the regional center, 1,000 fires have broken out in Alabama since late September; the governor declared a drought emergency in mid-October for the first time since 2007. Georgia, which has experienced drought conditions since early fall, required emergency water restrictions in the northern part of the state in mid-November.
Several climatologists and scientists said long-term climate models predict that the Southeast will continue to experience rising temperatures. But precipitation predictions are more uncertain. Extreme precipitation has increased over the last few decades, but it’s difficult to determine what patterns will look like across the region in the future, McLeod said. However, he added, if precipitation is followed by more prolonged periods of drought, wildfire conditions remain possible and drought periods followed by heavy rainfall can lead to flooding.
Higher temperatures and drought are likely partly to blame for this active wildfire season, but other factors, such as forest health and pests, play a role as well. Trees in the deciduous forests of the Southeast include black and red oaks, chestnuts, maples, birches and hemlocks. The woolly adelgid is an insect that sucks sap from hemlocks, killing them. The adelgid has been a problem in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, in particular, leaving behind standing dead trees susceptible to fire.
Another reason for wildfire risk is an emphasis on fire suppression and a lack of prescribed burns to reduce fuel in Southeastern forests, said Leda Kobziar, a University of Idaho natural resources assistant professor who studied Southeastern forests. Suppression has been debated by agencies and experts for many years. Fighting fires cost the U.S. Forest Service $1.7 billion in 2015, accounting for over half the agency’s budget. Many fires that naturally occur are put out by firefighters, allowing for the buildup of leaves, small trees, dust and flammable shrubs on the forest floor and forging a path for larger wildfires to burn hot and fast. “And once it’s burning, it’s hard to extinguish,” Kobziar said.
This has been occurring for years in the Smoky Mountains near Gatlinburg and in forests across the region. Jennifer Costanza, an assistant professor in the department of forestry and environmental resources at North Carolina State University, said these issues aren’t going away. “The combination of future changes in climate, urban sprawl, fire suppression and pest outbreaks lead to this perfect storm of conditions more often in the future,” she said. “Not only might we get more large wildfires, but they may have more substantial ecological impacts to forests and human lives and property.”
Although wildfires may draw more attention in the western U.S., the Southeast is no stranger to them. The U.S. Geological Survey and the Federal Emergency Management Agency mapped wildfire frequency from 1994 to 2013 and showed that while most hot spots are across large swaths of the West, there are a few key hazardous areas in the Southern Appalachians and parts of Alabama and Georgia. To researchers such as Costanza, another devastating wildfire in the Southeast was a long time coming. “But seeing pictures of Gatlinburg — that is scary, and anything like that is surprising,” she said.
Because of the sheer number of uncontained and uncontrolled wildfires, the Forest Service has undertaken an “unprecedented effort to contain and control” fires and help communities prevent new ones, by bringing in crews and resources from nearly every state and multiple federal agencies, said Shardul Raval, director of fire and aviation management for the Forest Service’s Southern region.
Wildfires present such danger in the region partly because a significant amount of the population — more than in any other region — lives in wildland-urban interfaces, where development meets natural areas. Asheville, North Carolina, and Atlanta are among the cities near forests, national and state parks and other public lands and have been under high alert during this season’s fires. Officials are monitoring how close the fires come to city limits. About 80 million people live in the Southeast, according to 2015 estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau. And urban sprawl is expected to increase dramatically in the region, potentially putting people even closer to forested areas.
Since the fire, Chandler has been to Gatlinburg nearly every day, helping the community prepare to open the city back up to the public. “It’s going to be a long process,” she said. She’s not necessarily fearful of more wildfires like this one, but she said it did change her perspective, especially about how fire crews and the community respond to such large fires. “We’re lucky we had time to get most people out.”
If more droughts and a population that continues to come into contact with wild areas are in the region’s future, funding for prevention steps such as creating healthier ecosystems, promoting community preparedness and fire education, and managing prescribed burns is crucial, experts said. Although scientists and climatologists don’t yet know whether this season of fires represents the start of a long-term pattern, conditions suggest that the Southeast might start seeing more intense fires like the one in Gatlinburg — and if so, the region will have to adapt.
“We spend so much time being reactive,” Kobziar said. “This is a time to mourn loss and property but also think about why this happened and what we can change.”