Chimney Tops 2 Fire Repeat Photography

Following the 2016 Chimney Tops 2 Fire, Great Smoky Mountains National Park began a repeat photography project to learn how forests grow back in severely burned areas. This project helps us understand the fire's impact to vegetation and trail safety and will help the park manage the burned area.

The Chimney Tops 2 Fire

The Chimney Tops 2 Fire began on November 23, 2016 on Chimney Tops, a remote area of the park characterized by vertical cliffs and narrow, rocky ridges. This human-caused fire burned across 11,000 acres in the park, leaving behind a mosaic of burned and unburned landscapes.

Before the fire, the Chimney Tops Trail was one of the most popular hiking destinations in the park. A short hike rewarded visitors at the summit with striking panoramic views. But a combination of severe fire and high winds during the Chimney Tops 2 event removed much of the trees and soils near the summit, leaving behind bare rock.

Because these new conditions were unstable and unsafe, the park closed off the last ~1/4 mile of the trail. A new observation deck allows hikers to view the Chimney Tops summits from a distance, and the final section of trail remains closed.

This repeat photography project will help the park determine when the summit area may be stable enough to re-establish the trail.
 
Three field technicians capture a repeat photo within the 2016 Chimney Tops 2 fire footprint.
Three NPS field technicians line up last year's photo with this year's shot to capture a repeat photo of wildfire recovery. NPS photo

What is Repeat Photography?

Sometimes, a photo can tell a story much better than numbers and words. As the saying goes, "a picture can be worth a thousand words!"

Have you ever marked a child's growth on a door frame? By returning to that door frame year after year, you can track gradual changes in height. Repeat photography is based on the same concept. By returning to the same location year after year and taking photos from the same vantage point each time, we can track landscape changes through time.
 

On the images below, move the center slider to compare vegetation recovery from August 2017 (nine months after fire) to August 2020 (three years after fire)

 

View of Chimney Tops 1 Ridgeline

Chimney Tops 1 Ridgeline, August 2017 Chimney Tops 1 Ridgeline, August 2017

Left image
August 2017 (9 months post-fire),
Credit: Rob Klein/National Park Service

Right image
August 2020 (3 years post-fire),
Credit: Alix Pfennigwerth/National Park Service

Before the fire, the Chimney Tops Trail took hikers through a forest of red spruce, yellow birch and rhododendron to the craggy summit in the upper left of this photo. Today, a new forest is growing back. Can you spot the bright green of fire cherry and birch colonizing the Chimney Tops slope in 2020, three years after the fire?

 

View of Chimney Tops 1 Summit

Chimney Tops 1 Summit, August 2017 Chimney Tops 1 Summit, August 2017

Left image
August 2017 (9 months post-fire),
Credit: Rob Klein/National Park Service

Right image
August 2020 (3 years post-fire),
Credit: Alix Pfennigwerth/National Park Service

This is a close up view of the Chimney Tops 1 summit, where the Chimney Tops Trail led hikers prior to the fire. Notice the dense, vibrant new growth of fire cherry and birch in 2020. A large spruce tree has also fallen in the foreground since the first photo was taken, a reminder that the fire killed even the largest trees in this area.

 

View facing North from Twin Creeks Science & Education Center

View from Twin Creeks Science & Education Center, Aug 2017 View from Twin Creeks Science & Education Center, Aug 2017

Left image
August 2017 (9 months post-fire),
Credit: NEON PhenoCam Network

Right image
August 2020 (3 years post-fire),
Credit: NEON PhenoCam Network

This photo is taken ~5 miles north of the Chimney Tops area, close to the town of Gatlinburg. The Chimney Tops 2 fire burned across the ridge in the photo. Do you see the flush of green on the ridgeline, three years after the fire? This new growth is mostly pine and hardwood trees.

Contact the Park

Mailing Address:

107 Park Headquarters Road
Gatlinburg , TN 37738

Phone:

865 436-1200

Contact Us

Stay Connected