Fire: April-May, 2009

A prescribed fire near Gregory Ridge mimics low-intensity fires that probably occurred naturally here in the past.

A prescribed fire near Gregory Ridge mimics low-intensity fires that probably burned across this landscape in the past.

NPS photo.

Fire history research

Researchers from the University of Tennessee and Texas A & M University spent their spring break (March 8-15) in the park, looking for clues about fires that occurred in the park hundreds of years ago. The researchers remove small pieces of wood from live and dead trees (“cores” and “wedges”) and apply the science of dendrochronology to determine the age of the trees and the years that fires occurred within the park. Knowing the frequency of historical fires is vital to understanding how the park can best manage fire-dependent species like Table Mountain Pine. The researchers are currently in the third year of a three-year project funded by the Joint Fire Sciences Program.

New funding to research the connections between fire and endangered bats

Plans are being made to study Federally Endangered Indiana Bats in the park this summer, and bat researchers have just received the exciting news that an additional three-year project has been funded. This new research will start up in the fall of 2009, and the focus of the study will be the relationship of Indiana bats to natural and human-caused fires. Park scientists already know that these bats tend to favor pine forests as places to rear their young, but need to learn more about how the frequent fires that occur in these forests could affect the bats. Park biologists will be working with researchers from Clemson University and the US Forest Service to explore these and other questions.

Controlled burns—setting fires in the Smokies

  • Cades Cove: Fire managers at Great Smoky Mountains National Park conducted a series of controlled burns of fields in the interior of Cades Cove from March 24-mid-April. The fires wnet as planned and burned three to seven different parcels totaling up to 300 acres from now until May 1. Managers burned fields as part of a cost-effective strategy to prevent forest from overtaking the open grasslands. The Park contracts to mow about 950 acres of fields that are clearly visible from the Cades Cove Loop Road twice a year. Other fields that are less visible from the Loop Road, totaling around 1,000 acres, are kept open by burning or mowing on a three year rotation.
  • Wears Valley: On April 17th, fire managers set a 200 acre prescribed burn just inside the Park south of Wears Valley in Sevier County, Tennessee. As Mark Taylor, Great Smoky Mountains National Park Fire Management Officer, said, “The Park conducts prescribed burns each year for a number of different purposes including habitat management and hazard fuel reduction. In this case, the purpose is to reduce the build-up of flammable brush inside the Park boundary in order to reduce the risk of an un-controlled fire threatening private dwellings located just outside the Park.”

In preparation for the burn Fire Management personnel cleared brush and leaf litter along the boundary and along Indian Camp Branch, which served as fire control lines to keep the fire within its planned boundaries. Park fire fighters and fire engines from Wears Valley and Townsend Volunteer Fire Departments patrolled the fire lines and watched for embers or flare-ups in the days following the main burn.

The Park participates in a national educational program called “FireWise” that provides information and technical assistance to communities on developing strategies that decrease fire risk to personal property. Read more about the FireWise program.

Laurel Falls 2 fire impacts spread to trail edges.

The Laurel Falls 2 fire, two days after it spread from an illegal campfire. It scorched land up to popular park trails.

NPS photo.

Uncontrolled burns—putting out wildfires in the Smokies

What’s the difference between a fire that we want (a controlled burn) and one that we don’t (a wild fire)? It might seem like a fire’s a fire, but this isn’t the case in a landscape that’s been without any natural fires for so long. Fire suppression programs that started when the Park began (and in parks and public lands all across the country) have left large amounts of flammable material, and unintended fires can burn hotter and be much more destructive than regular fires in an area that’s burned regularly would be. The park service and other federal agencies conduct controlled burns at low-risk times (when there’s high humidity and low winds) to gradually reduce the fuel load.

During unseasonably hot and dry weather in the last week of April, Park fire crews found themselves dealing with four potential in-park fires. the Wear Cove fire was a controlled burn, but needed added attention with the change in weather to make sure it stayed that way. Two other fires—the Stony Ridge and Laurel Falls 2 fires—burned in the park, and one—the Cobbly Knob fire—burned just outside its boundaries. Hotshot crews from Arizona assisted in the fighting the fires within the Park, and helicopter crews dumped water and fire retardant on selected areas to stop the fire’s spread.

  • Stony Ridge: This fire began on April 27 when a power line in the Big Cove community of the Qualla Boundary Reservation near Cherokee, North Carolina, sparked dry vegetation. By late that day, it had burned 1,000-1,500 acres, with a small number within the Park. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Park Service, U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Indian Affairs, the North Carolina Division of Forest Resources, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, and the Swain, Jackson, Haywood and Qualla Fire Departments responded and worked throughout the week. By Friday, rain moved into the area, and helped firefighters suppress the fire enough that area highways reopened. Continued rain allowed most firefighters to leave the area, leaving the last tasks—checking for smoking stumps and logs, and scattering logs and branches to help the firelines that they cut recover. 2,200 total acres burned.
  • Laurel Falls 2: Park visitors started this fire when they set an illegal campfire along the Laurel Falls trail, about five miles west of Gatlinburg, on April 27th. Firefighters estimated that 100 acres were burning by the morning of the 28th, and used a helicopter to drop 2,100 gallons of water and fire retardant in the fire’s path. By Friday, May 1, National Park Service, U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Indian Affairs firefighters had suppressed the fire, and trails were reopened.

Return to Resource Roundup: April-May, 2009.

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