Wildland Fire

Prescribed fires are used to invigorate ecosystems and species that benefit from fire.
Prescribed fires are used to invigorate ecosystems and species that benefit from fire.

Wildland Fire in the National Park Service

A primary goal of the National Park Service is to preserve native plants and animals in the Great Smoky Mountains, as well as the natural processes which perpetuate them. Park managers have learned that fire is one of the natural processes which some plants and animals depend on. For most of the history of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the National Park Service has suppressed all forest fires within park boundaries. However, extensive research by scientists in the southern Appalachians and elsewhere has gradually proven the importance of fire in maintaining healthy ecosystems.

In accordance with its goal of preserving natural conditions, the National Park Service has responded to this new information by modifying its fire management policy to include the use of wildland fires and prescribed fires as components of its resource management program. Arson fires will continue to be fought, as will all other fires that threaten human life or valuable property. Safety and protection of property remain the top priorities of firefighting staff in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Fire in the Great Smoky Mountains
Records show that an average of two lightning-ignited forest fires occur in Great Smoky Mountains National Park each year, usually in May or June. Forest fires are most common at the low and mid-elevations, especially where pine and oak forests predominate.

Prior to European settlement, occasional fires were an integral part of most Appalachian ecosystems and native plants and animals had adapted to their occurrence. Forests then were a more varied blend of old and young trees and some forests were more open in character. Fire recycled the nutrients of dead wood for use by growing plants and conditioned the forest floor for the regeneration of species that are dependent on disturbance. In Great Smoky Mountains National Park, at least a dozen species of native plants and animals that benefit from fire have been identified.

Table Mountain pine is a prime example of a species that benefits from fire. During high intensity burns, the sealed cones of Table Mountain pine open, allowing dispersion of seeds over fire-cleared ground. Many stands of Table Mountain pine in the park are failing to regenerate due to past fire control practices. The decline is of special concern to biologists because the species' range is confined to the southern and central Appalachian Mountains.

The federally-endangered Red-cockaded Woodpecker is another fire-dependent species native to the park. It nests only in mature pine trees that are free of surrounding underbrush. Researchers believe the Red-cockaded colonies in the west end of the park were abandoned when the sites became too brushy. Periodic fires would control the brush which may provide predators with access to woodpecker nests.

Even whole ecosystems need fire to maintain their natural diversity of plants and animals. Many pine-oak and oak forests in the park appear to have very poor reproductive success without occasional fire. Little or no oak regeneration has occurred at some sites since total fire suppression was initiated in the 1930s. Oaks provide acorns in the fall which are an important food source for black bear, white-tailed deer, Wild Turkey, and other wildlife.

Igniting a prescribed fire in Cades Cove
A member of a fire crew uses a drip torch to ignite a prescribed fire in Cades Cove.

Prescribed Fires
Fire suppression practices during the last 60-70 years, coupled with the construction of thousands of homes and rental cabins near the park boundary, have created problems which the current fire management policy attempts to solve. In certain cases the Park Service is intentionally igniting closely-controlled fires to accomplish resource management and safety needs.

The two primary goals of prescribed fires are:

  • to invigorate a species or ecosystem that benefits from fire
  • to reduce heavy accumulations of dead wood and brush which under drought conditions could produce catastrophic wildfires that threaten human life and valuable property

In areas of the park where plants and animals (especially rare and endangered species) live that would benefit from fire, the Park Service has elected to conduct prescribed fires. Such fires have pre-determined boundaries and are ignited only under very specific conditions. Limiting conditions include weather, fuel moisture, soil moisture, availability of trained fire-fighting personnel, and air quality conditions.

Prescribed fires have been conducted at several locations in the park to benefit the Red-cockaded Woodpecker, purple fringeless orchid, mountain catchfly, whiteleaf sunflower, dwarf larkspur, goldenseal, Indian grass, and other species. Scientific monitoring is conducted before and after the burns to make sure the fires achieve the desired results. This monitoring has shown that rare plant species have increased significantly following treatment with fire. New stands of yellow pines have also been documented.

Another purpose for prescribed fire is reduction of heavy accumulations of dead wood and brush which could fuel catastrophic fire under drought conditions. Successful prescribed fires have been conducted on the park boundary near Gatlinburg, Tennessee where large numbers of beetle-killed pine trees sit adjacent to homes and rental chalets just outside the park. Such fires are usually preceded by manual removal of some trees and brush, construction of fire lines, and close coordination with local firefighting organizations.

Wildland fires that occur in certain areas are allowed to burn.
In certain areas of the park, wildland fires are allowed to burn, but are closely monitored.

Wildland Fires
Under the fire management plan, lightning-caused fires that do not threaten valuable property or human life are allowed to burn in some areas of the park if conditions are favorable. The purpose of this policy is to restore park ecosystems to a more natural condition which existed prior to European settlement of the region. From 1997 to 2000, approximately 1,000 acres burned under this policy.

To facilitate the management of wildland fires, the park has been divided into three zones.

ZONE 1-includes most of the park boundary and all historic and developed areas in the park (e.g. Cades Cove, Sugarlands, Deep Creek, Oconaluftee, Smokemont, Tremont, Roaring Fork, Cataloochee, etc.). All fires in this zone will be immediately suppressed. If fire is needed in this zone as a resource management tool, prescribed fires will be used.

ZONE 2-serves as a buffer between zones 1 and 3. Certain fires will be allowed to burn if they are not predicted to threaten zone 1 areas within 48 hours.

ZONE 3-contains most of the undeveloped interior of the park. Fires will be allowed to burn if they stay within predetermined parameters and are not predicted to leave the zone within 48 hours.

A firefighter manages a fire in the park.
A crew member controls the spread of flames.

Low Impact Fire Fighting Methods
Fire managers have learned from the past that the equipment and personnel required to fight a major wildfire can cause more damage to an area than the fire itself. Consequently, the current fire management plan emphasizes fighting fires in ways that minimize damage to park resources. Fire retardant dropped from aircraft will be used only when necessary and never closer than 200 yards to streams. Bulldozers for cutting fire lines will only be used in extreme situations when high value resources are at risk. Tree-falling will be kept to a minimum and fire lines and camps will be rehabilitated after use.

Learn more about the people who are managing the park using fire at Meet the Managers: Fire Management.


National Wildland Fire Cohesive Strategy Success Stories

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    Last updated: May 17, 2021

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