Lessons from the Gatlinburg Tennessee fires

The recent blazes that have consumed more than a thousand structures in Gatlinburg, Tennessee offers yet another lesson about wildfire. The inferno that roared across Gatlinburg was driven by extreme drought and 80 mile-an-hour winds which blew embers miles beyond the fire front. There several important lessons.

First, rural sprawl contributed to the massive fires because trees, fallen by winds, broke power lines which sparked many additional fires.

Second, most of the homes in the Gatlinburg area were not fire safe.

Third, a review of some of the burnt neighborhoods shows the domino effect that characterizes wildfires in suburban neighborhoods.  Due to the flammable construction materials in the typical home, house fires burn hotter than forest fires. Wind-driven fires have a pulse of heat, but move on, often without being able to burn an outside house wall to ignition. However, a structure fire burns much hotter and doesn’t move on. Consequently, once one house becomes engulfed in flames, it can create enough heat to ignite adjacent homes. You can see this effect in this before and after photo. http://www.cnn.com/2016/12/02/us/gatlinburg-fire-pictures-before-after/

It is misleading to suggest that thinning forests can protect neighborhoods. The only proven way to safeguard homes is to reduce the flammability of the house and surrounding landscape in the immediate area. Fuel reductions need to be no more than 100-200 feet from a structure to safeguard the home. Metal or non-flammable roofs, screens on vents, and removal of flammable materials like firewood near the home can go a long way towards increasing the likelihood that a home will survive even a major high severity blaze.

One additional recommendation. Though most people believe it is the wall of flames that is responsible for home combustion, nearly half of the homes burned by wildfire annually in the US are the result of surface fires. In other words, a slow-moving blaze in grass or pine needles that ignites a home.






George Wuerthner is an ecologist and writer who has published 38 books on various topics related to environmental and natural history. He has visited over 400 designated wilderness areas and over 200 national park units.

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George Wuerthner