University of Tennessee professor, Dr. Henri Grissino-Mayer warns that the GSMNP is a 520,000 acre tinderbox.
“This is the greatest concentration of people in the wildland-urban interface in the nation,” the University of Tennessee professor said to the Knoxville Sentinel.
As director of the UT Laboratory on Tree Ring Science, Grissino-Mayer knew early settlers and Native Americans regularly burned the area now deemed the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. For a healthy forest, attractive to game and bountiful berry patches, humans for centuries burned the mountains.
Whether started by lightning or people, tree rings recorded 13 fires between 1825 and 1934, he said. Those fires in what would become the National Park consumed fuel collecting on the forest floor.
Grissino-Mayer has proof of those fires hanging from the walls of his office. Slices of trees an inch or so thick show extensive fires every seven to 10 years, he said.
“I still maintain the Smokies are called that because of the constant fires in the mountains,” the professor said.
“Now we have 80 years of fuel built up on our National Park.”
Next up, mudslides
“There’s nothing holding those slopes up there,” Grissino-Mayer said. “With all the dead trees up there, those slopes are coming down.”
The professor said to the untrained eye, trees along slopes now bearing foliage would seem alive. But many of the trees, he said are dead.
The roots that would hold firm steep slopes during heavy rains are decaying under the soil as leaves sprout along branches. The leaves are the result of food stored in the trees, he said.
“Those slopes are going to go and take those million dollar houses with them and just cover The Spur,” Grissino Mayer said. “Not a little dirt, but cover The Spur.”
'My next prediction is Pigeon Forge'
Whether through restrictive building codes, wider acceptance of beneficial fires sending smoke into populated areas or firefighters and homeowners working together to reduce wildfire fuel in the community, Grissino-Mayer said “something has to give.”
“This problem will just keep accelerating until Mother Nature says, ‘It’s time to burn,’ and we’re going to see megafires like they’ve had in Yellowstone,” he said.
“That’s exactly what we have in Gatlinburg. It’s going to burn now or it’s going to burn later. My next prediction is Pigeon Forge. Pigeon Forge dodged the bullet. If the rains hadn’t come (on Nov. 28-29), Pigeon Forge would have been toast. Pigeon Forge is a community just waiting to burn."