fiery debate

This Town Got Burned By Wildfires. Now They Are Being Asked to Prepare for the Next One.

The resort towns nestled at the base of the Smoky Mountains are experiencing their first—but not last—wildfires.

Brian Blanco / Getty

On a warm, clear November Tuesday in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, survivors paused to remember the dead—the 14 people killed in a fast-moving wildfire that swept out of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park a year ago, leaving behind more than 2,500 ruined homes and businesses.

Rangers had been monitoring what was at first a small fire for five days, before it morphed and came roaring down the slopes of a 4,800-foot peak known as Chimney Tops, whipped on by wind gusts of up to 80 mph from an approaching storm. A deep, lengthy drought in the southern Appalachian Mountains had left plenty of dry brush, logs, and leaves in its path. As the fire moved toward Gatlinburg, park rangers and city officials struggled to communicate because their radios worked on different frequencies and large areas lacked cell phone service.

The result was a fast-moving wall of flames that sent thousands fleeing in what looked like a road rally through hell. In addition to the dozen-plus lives lost, the 17,000-acre fire destroyed nearly $1 billion worth of property—much of it rental cabins that pump money into the local economy. Prosecutors accused two teens of starting the fires, but charges against them were later dropped.

Down the road in Pigeon Forge, Tony Watson had his eye on the next fire as the anniversary neared.

Watson is the fire chief in Pigeon Forge, eight miles north of Gatlinburg. Though not as hard-hit as its neighbor, his town of 6,100 lost 19 homes in the city limits and another 269 in the nearby countryside.

Watson and his firefighters are busy promoting ways to protect homes from what the National Park Service has called a “new normal”—a higher risk of wildfire, driven partly by climate change.

Pigeon Forge is best known as the hometown of Dolly Parton and the country singer’s Dollywood theme park. Now it’s also seeking recognition as a “firewise community,” keeping the hazards of their mountain home near the top of people’s minds. Watson and his crews have so far advised about 100 property owners about what they can do to help defend against the threat of another fire.

“It involves going out and assessing our residences and community businesses to give them recommendations to make their home more resilient from the threat of wildfire,” Watson said. “That may be anywhere from talking to them about fuels being next to the house, it could be combustibles storage, it could be thinning, it could be non-combustible plantings. We’re going out there and showing them what they can do.”

Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge lie in the shadow of America’s most popular national park, which straddles Tennessee and nearby North Carolina and draws more than 11 million visitors per year.

Urging communities in the Southeast to get ready for that “new normal” has become a cause for University of Tennessee geographer Henri Grissino-Mayer, a wildfire expert who has been telling residents to rebuild with the next blaze in mind.

“To be sure, these same conditions are likely to align again in the future to allow for a large-scale wildfire that leaves the park and burns into the urban-interface,” the Park Service concluded in its after-action report on the disaster. Climate change is expected to worsen those dangers, the August report added—and it urged the agency and communities near the park to plan for threats that “can no longer be ignored.”

The kind of fires that devastated Gatlinburg – or that struck towns north of San Francisco in October—are more common in the drier West, Grissino-Mayer said. But far more people live among the forests east of the Mississippi River, and they’re now facing the same risks their western cousins have lived with for years.

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“If you’re going to manage lands and manage forests, you have to accept the fact that wildfires are going to become more common,” Grissino-Mayer said. “They’re going to be more destructive, they’re going to kill more people and destroy more property. That’s the bottom line.”

Grissino-Mayer said other Appalachian draws like Helen, Georgia—a mountain getaway about two hours north of Atlanta—could find themselves facing a Gatlinburg-type blaze. Modeled on an Alpine village and perched at the edge of the Chattahoochee National Forest, Helen “is literally the Georgia counterpart to Gatlinburg.”

“It is these tourist towns that pose the greatest danger,” Grissino-Mayer said. “They are built up, made of wood—rustic, mountainous [and] surrounded by areas that were meant to burn.”

North Georgia also saw unusually large wildfires in 2016, including one that scorched 25,000 acres about 50 miles west of Helen. Helen’s city manager, Jerry Jenkins, said his town has been looking for a way to address that risk “that’s reasonable, without too much additional costs.”

“It’s hard to get people to go along with some of these things, because it costs them money, and they don’t want to do that,” Jenkins said. After Gatlinburg, the city sent out booklets with Firewise checklists to residents, but it hasn’t changed any building or zoning rules, he said.

“I really wish I could tell you we were doing more. When things like that are over, it’s a big deal, then everybody lets it drop to the wayside. Hopefully, we will improve on that.”

The prospect of more billion-dollar losses certainly has the attention of the insurance industry. The aftermath of a disaster like Gatlinburg “is really an opportunity to take a hard look at things and to try to make sure it doesn’t happen again—to change our policy, to change our behavior,” Rob Galbraith, director of underwriting research for Texas-based insurer USAA, said.

But faced with the task of rebuilding, people have the urge “to put it behind them and move on.”

“At a time when it seems like extreme weather events are increasing, we’re also building in these areas,” Galbraith said. “So I do think there’s going to be a kind of exponential curve if we’re not careful, where we’ll see more and more expensive disasters happening.”

In Gatlinburg, however, not everyone buys the “new normal.” In a sharp public break with the Park Service, the city and surrounding Sevier County said they “strongly disagree” with that assessment.

The statement said both agencies are working to improve their emergency management plans and conducting their own after-action reviews. But it called the disaster “an unprecedented event caused by a ‘perfect storm’ of extreme drought, hurricane-force winds, and arson. It was among the worst natural disasters in our nation’s history and no fire of this proportion has ever occurred in our region.”

Grissino-Mayer said he and others were “blown away” by that statement. To ignore the experts who investigated the fire and the aftermath “is placing a lot of people and property in danger,” he said. Individual neighborhoods and people have shown interest in taking steps toward building more fire-safe communities, he said, but “they really need greater participation from the majority of the people.”

Gatlinburg officials did not respond to requests for comment about the criticism and what they’re doing to address the risk of future fires. But back in Pigeon Forge, Watson said his town is acting on the warning the Park Service report delivered.

Fire seasons are getting longer, intensifying faster, and getting bigger. And while droughts are hard to predict, Watson said the kind of winds that whipped up last year’s conflagration happen up to six times a year, and can potentially stoke stronger, more frequent wildfires.

“That doesn’t mean it’s going to happen next week. It doesn’t mean it’s going to happen next year,” Watson said. But he added, “I do believe these things can occur again when those conditions arise. That’s what the science tells us.”