Fire on the Mountain: How East Tennessee Communities Are Fighting the Risk of Wildfires

In Cover Stories by S. Heather Duncanleave a COMMENT

Read more coverage of the recent wildfires here.

Retirees Gary Stephens and his wife Marilyn were at their Florida home last spring when they got the call about the house they had built in Sevier County.

“There’s a fire going right toward your home,” one of their English Mountain neighbors told them.

That was the beginning of a long, sleepless night scrounging for fire updates from different neighbors. Thinking about the advice state forestry officials had given him, Gary Stephens wondered whether the steps he had taken to protect the house would work. Following the recommendations, Stephens had cut down pine trees on the steep mountain slope beneath his house, trimmed hardwood branches that were less than 12 feet from the ground, and reduced underbrush.

But in a real wildfire, would any of it make any difference?

The next day, the Stephens flew to Kentucky, then raced to English Mountain. On their way up, they met neighbors gathered at a Smokies overlook that overlooked nothing but smoke. No one could see the Stephens’ house—just flames flaring up through the haze.

Continuing past a roadblock, they finally glimpsed the outline of their home, with a fire truck and other firefighting equipment jammed into the driveway.

The house was intact.

“The fire came up right behind house and to the driveway,” Stephens says. “If we’d had all these pine trees and things around, I don’t know if the fire department and forestry service could have saved it. I think it would have been a lot more difficult for them to control the fire around the house.” As it was, the fire department kept a truck in the driveway for three nights to look for flare-ups caused by embers as the fire continued across the valley. It eventually burned about 600 acres.

The amount and intensity of the spring wildfires, including the one on English Mountain, pale in comparison with the tens of thousands of acres that have burned across the state this fall, and other homeowners have not been so lucky.

With some exceptions around Chattanooga, most of this fall’s fires burned uninhabited woods until swaths of Gatlinburg were destroyed this week, leaving some people fortunate to escape with their lives. Residents become more susceptible to harm as people are drawn to the serenity of living in the woods or on steep mountaintops at the edges of civilization.

That’s why the state has been trying to work directly with homeowners’ associations to reduce the risk to these homes. The English Mountain fire swept all the way around the Stephens’ house, but it didn’t damage their home or any of the others in the neighborhood. Stephens credits the neighborhood association’s promotion of the state Firewise program, which provided valuable tips to residents about reducing potential wildfire fuel on their property.

But these measures can only help so much in unusual conditions, like the 70-mile-per-hour wind gusts whipping drought-parched Sevier County this week. The Gatlinburg community of Cobbly Nob had a Firewise plan, but early reports indicate that 75 to 100 homes there were nevertheless destroyed by the wildfire that spread through embers from Great Smoky Mountains National Park Monday night.

The Firewise program, offered through the Tennessee Division of Forestry, falls under the umbrella of a federal “Fire-Adapted Communities” initiative, which helps neighborhoods and towns reduce fire risk, prepare for safe evacuations, and plan for putting out wildfires.

Like a Roman Candle

Leon Konz, a wildfire mitigation specialist based in Knoxville, helps Tennessee communities develop wildfire protection plans, mostly by partnering with neighborhood groups like the English Mountain Homeowners Association. Other participants include neighborhoods in Sevier, Blount, Monroe, Union and Claiborne counties in East Tennessee. So far, he says, only one city in the state has developed a wildfire protection plan: Bolivar, in West Tennessee.

Like most neighborhoods, English Mountain got involved through contacts from state foresters offering to come present Firewise information at a neighborhood association meeting.

English Mountain was one of several areas in Sevier County that experienced wildfires this spring, and provides an example of exactly what the forestry division wanted to accomplish: Saving homes (and sometimes lives) by empowering homeowners with the information they need to protect themselves. Another fire on nearby Bluff Mountain during the same period destroyed cabins in a community that had not participated in the Firewise program, Konz says.

Wildfire protection plans assess community fire risks and strengths, including the width and steepness of roads, access to water sources, and types of housing, Konz says. The plan identifies improvements like reducing brush in communal areas and improving street signs for responders, as well as long term goals like increasing the number of fire hydrants, creating guidelines for the design of new roads, and limiting building materials allowed for new houses (like banning wood shake shingles).

“A lot of it is just common sense, like keeping leaves out of your gutters,” Stephens says. “They teach you what takes your home is just the underbrush and leaves that creep up under your house.”

Konz says more than half of homes catch fire because an ember lands on roof or deck where leaves or needles have accumulated.

“These big fires we’re experiencing now are lofting and carrying embers farther than normal,” he says. “If they land on your home, even if it’s a mile or half-mile from fire, it can catch fire.”

In addition to keeping leaves and needles cleared, Konz says the most important thing a homeowner can do is to reduce the amount of highly flammable pines, laurel, and rhododendron within 30 to 100 feet of the house.

Stephens is on a committee of residents who inspect other homes in the neighborhood and provide owners a list of recommendations for ways to reduce wildfire risks on their property. This ongoing process, paired with an annual Firewise education day, is an annual requirement for communities to stay in the program, Konz says.

English Mountain might have been more open to the idea because residents there had seen four condominium buildings go up in flames atop the mountain in 2012. But some that did not really participate in the Firewise effort before this spring have since taken measures like bulldozing firebreaks behind their homes, Stephens says.

On average, Tennessee battles about 1,200 fires burning 20,000 acres each decade, says Tim Phelps, communications unit leader for the Tennessee Division of Forestry. But this year has seen the most wildfire activity since 2000, at the end of a two-year drought.

“That year we had twice as much burn as what we have currently,” Phelps noted last week, with the current extreme drought only having begun in late summer. As of Tuesday, almost the entire state was listed in at least severe drought by the U.S. Drought monitor, with all or part of about 15 counties in exceptional drought.

That laid the groundwork for more than 43,500 acres having burned statewide since the beginning of the year, according to the division of forestry. The fires were even more dramatic this year because of the contrast with recent years, when the state has had a record low number of fires, Phelps says. Rain is forecast to finally help with both the drought and fires this week, although the wind accompanying those storm fronts can be dangerous.

Last spring, Stephens watched from his home as the fire that bypassed his house ate up the valley beneath. Fire fighters thought they had contained it at the next ridge, but wind gusts blew it over the fire breaks. “When it hit those pine trees, it would just go up like a Roman candle,” says Stephens, who watched a helicopter drop water on the ridge. “And then the wind blowing up these valleys, it’s just amazing to see.”

Prescribed Fire

In recent years, Western and Gulf Coast states have tried to reduce the intensity of forest fires, even deep in the woods far from human structures, by encouraging private landowners to conduct controlled burns.

That’s a reversal. The old Smokey the Bear message generally led the public to assume all fires were bad.

“Basically as a society we’re not comfortable with using fire because we don’t understand it,” says Wally Akins, a wildlife biologist for the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency. “Our grandfathers and people before them used fire quite a bit. It was a common practice for people to burn their property, probably mostly with farming to keep fields from being overgrown.”

But removing regular burns from the equation meant that a tremendous amount of dead wood and pine needles built up. Controlled or “prescribed” fires, set by trained experts in the right weather conditions and at the right point in the growing season, remove this fuel but don’t burn hot enough to kill trees.

In Tennessee, prescribed fire is used less. That’s mostly because 90 percent of its forests are dominated by hardwood, which is more easily harmed by fire, Phelps says.

But prescribed burns are growing more common nonetheless, says Akins. “We have increased our acreage in prescribed fire every year for the last 8 to 15 years,” he says.

And state experts actively encourage well-planned prescribed burns. For a small fee, the 30 area foresters working for the Division of Forestry consult with private forest owners—who own 80 percent of the woods in the state—to help them plan and even conduct the burns. Most interested landowners want to use fire to improve wildlife habitat, particularly for turkey, Phelps says.

“We usually have more demand for conducting prescribed fires than we can provide, mostly because there are small windows of time when it’s safe and appropriate to do that,” he says.

Federal cost-sharing programs, most notably the “EQIP” program offered through the Farm Bill, can help landowners pay for conducting prescribed fires to benefit wildlife. EQIP, which stands for Environmental Quality Incentives Program , is used most often by farmers, who receive incentives for making their field edges and uncultivated land more beneficial to air and water quality, as well as wildlife. Prescribed fire helps improve habitat for grassland songbirds, deer, turkey and other animals, Akins says. υ

Catching the Firestarters

Arson is always one of the major causes of wildfires. State and local fire officials have said both the Walland and Great Smoky Mountains National Park fires were caused by humans, although it’s not clear yet whether both were intentional.

This year the state is blaming about 79 percent of the acres burned by wildfires on arsonists, and at least seven arrests have been made—a higher number than usual, says Tim Phelps, communications director for the Tennessee Division of Forestry. As of Monday, the state had identified 666 of this year’s wildfires as arsons. (No, we did not make up that apt-sounding number.)

“Historically speaking, from convictions, it’s folks that are looking for excitement,” Phelps says. “Or they have a vendetta against somebody like a family member or a girlfriend.” They tend to be uneducated young white men, he says. The Division of Forestry maps the state’s fires each year and has seen patterns indicating where the same arsonists, who haven’t been caught, appear to set fires year after year, Phelps says.

“Woods arsonists are sometimes hard to track down,” he says. “They do it alone at night on some backcountry road. Fortunately this year, through tips from the public to the arson hotline, the (agricultural) crime unit and sheriff’s offices, we’ve been able to catch a few and make those arrests. There’s a lot more leads.”

Anyone with information about the origin of any East Tennessee fires can call the arson hotline 24 hours a day at 800-762-3017, or report arson to the Tennessee Division of Agriculture Crime Unit at 1-844-AGCRIME (1-844-242-7463). The state’s arson reward fund is now at $2,500 for a tip that leads to an arson arrest and conviction—or callers may remain anonymous.

 

East Tennessee communities with wildfire prevention plans:

• Sevier: Cobbly Knob, Shagbark, and English Mountain

• Union: North Shores, Lead Mine Bend, The Highlands

• Blount: Fencerail Gap

• Monroe: Laurel Mountain Lakes, Tri-Communities

• Claiborne: Lone Mountain Shores 

• Van Buren and Bledsoe counties: Long Branch Lakes

S. Heather Duncan

S. Heather Duncan has won numerous awards for her feature writing and coverage of the environment, government, education, business and local history during her 15-year reporting career. Originally from Western North Carolina, Heather has worked for Radio Free Europe, the Institute for War and Peace Reporting in London, and several daily newspapers. Heather spent almost a dozen years at The Telegraph in Macon, Ga., where she spent most of her time covering the environment or writing project-investigations that provoked changes such as new laws related to day care and the protection of environmentally-sensitive lands. You can reach Heather at heather@knoxmercury.com

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