Insights from the 2016 Southern Appalachian Wildfires

Review of prescribed fire laws & projections to 2060

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Chimney Tops 2 was one of the most destructive fires in recent record: destroying structures, burning hundreds of thousands of acres, and causing scores of human deaths. Photo by Marcus Kauffman, courtesy of Unsplash.

Depending on their timing and location, fires can destroy or restore, with little gray area in between. In the early fall of 2016, one specific fire event in Southern Appalachia was unlike any other in recent decades, leaving behind unprecedented devastation once the fire had ceased.

From this disastrous fire season comes a recent report authored by USDA Forest Service scientists, led by Natasha James, offering a close analysis of wildfires on public lands in the Southern Appalachians.

State burning laws, which target and reduce fuel loads for wildfires, and the causes of wildfires are examined to offer projections on how fire patterns could unfold through the year 2060 in the Southern Appalachians.

This information will hopefully be utilized to adequately prepare for future wildfires in the region by understanding the only controllable force in wildfire prevention: fuel materials.

Although fires know no boundaries and affect the Southern Appalachia region as a whole, it is important to note that “individual states have their own methods of preventing and controlling these fires,” says James.

To reduce the potential for anomalous fires, such as those seen in 2016, controlled burns are used in this context to reduce the amount of flammable fuels for potential wildfires. Controlled burns are regulated by state agencies.

There are two different types of controlled burning laws. Open burn laws “define a minimum standard that all burners must follow, or else be subject to fines and/or imprisonment,” and certified prescribed burn laws are “a higher level of preparation and care” which are incentivized by “assistance” and “limitations on burners’ ability,” says Gregory Frey, research forester and report co-author. Open burns and certified prescribed burns help to prevent property and human damage from both escaped fire and released smoke.

These two controlled burning treatments are regulated to varying extents by the states that comprise the Southern Appalachian region. Of these states, the researchers found that, in descending order, South Carolina, Alabama, Virginia, Kentucky and one part of North Carolina have the most requirements for controlled burns. Georgia is followed closely by a different section of North Carolina and Tennessee in having the fewest requirements.

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Having a better understanding of each state’s controlled burning legislation and data can better prepare the region for anomalous fires like Chimney Tops 2. Photo by Brocken Inaglory, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Even with the controlled burning regulations and tremendous mitigation effort by firefighters, which prevented incalculable property damage and death, destruction of the Chimney Tops 2 fire was unprecedented.

From all of the documented fires in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park between 1992 to 2017, the Chimney Tops 2 fire accounts for more than 50 percent of total acreage burned. More than 66 percent of all residential and commercial structures burned in 2016 in the entire US were located in Tennessee, where the Chimney Tops 2 fire dominated.

The study found that in the Southern Appalachian states with available data, more controlled burns were conducted in counties outside of Appalachia. The controlled burns were more likely occur in regions where longleaf pines, a tree species dependent on periodic fire, were abundant.

Models of the region predicted wildfires through the year 2060. The models predicted that human-induced wildfires would decrease by 80 percent, while lightning-induced wildfires are expected to increase by 236 percent. The decrease is expected from enhanced controlled burn legislation, changing environmental conditions and socioeconomic changes while the increase is from predicted changes in environmental conditions. Taken together, the researchers predict an overall decrease in wildfires through 2060.

“This is more complex than just a landscape,” says James. With so many variables playing a role in the Southern Appalachian fire events, it is crucial to understand how forest management could be implemented in ways that save the most lives and prevent the most damage to habitats and structures.

The lessons from 2016 will hopefully guide safer wildfire seasons in Southern Appalachia if taken seriously. If not, anomalous fires, like Chimney Tops 2, may come to represent a new norm.

Learn more about fires in the Southern Appalachians.

For more information, email Natasha A. James at natasha.a.james@usda.gov.

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