Forest Fires Burn 119,000 Acres in 8 Southeastern States

by Duane Nichols on November 30, 2016

Blount County at Walland School (11/17/16)

Gatlinburg and Pidgeon Forge  in Tennessee are now being evacuated

(Some 43 Photos are Accessible on Blount County, TN)

From an Article by Steve Ahillen, Knoxville Times-Sentinel, November 20, 2016

Knoxville, Tenn. — Forest fires that have burned more than 119,000 acres in eight states and have people from Asheville to Atlanta smelling smoke continue to rage through most of the Southeast.

More than 6,300 firefighters, some from as far as Alaska, are fighting fires that range from just a few acres to one in the Cohutta Wilderness in northern Georgia that has burned 27,000. That fire has burned more than a month and is just 20 percent contained. A total of 74 aircraft, including Black Hawk helicopters and BAE tanker jets, have been used.

The Southern Coordination Center in Atlanta has overseen the fire response, coordinating efforts with a myriad of federal, state and local agencies and fire departments. The center’s Dave Martin said he can’t be sure if the extent of the fires is unprecedented, but it is the biggest he can remember.

“It has been quite a while since we had had this number of large fires at this many locations,” he said. “The last time it was comparable was in 2001 and even then it wasn’t this busy.”

States that have been dealing with fires are Tennessee, Kentucky, Virginia, West Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Alabama. The fires taken together are even starting to rival the mammoth blazes of the west. The Big Sur fire in late July burned around 132,000 acres.

PHOTO: A wildfire in Blount County on Thursday, November 17, 2016 near Walland Elementary School has burned 20-80 acres of land and could spread to 200 acres

A severe drought that has gripped the South — in some areas since spring — has been the big catalyst.

“The lower humidity and significant lack of precipitation for more than three months have made a perfect environment for fires to spread,” said the center’s Adam Rondeau. “It makes them faster and stronger.” Rondeau said there have been 50 major fires – fires that burn more than 100 acres.

No lives have been lost. Only minor injuries and minimum property damage have been reported, Martin said. Several structures have been damaged including one residence, a house near Trenton, Ga.

However, the smoke, especially dense in the Tennessee Valley in cities like Knoxville and Chattanooga, has sent hundreds of people to emergency rooms with respiratory problems.

The Environmental Protection Agency’s Air Quality Index has in the past few weeks occasionally placed affected cities in the red “unhealthy” level, an indication that “everyone may begin to experience health effects.”

PHOTO: Smoke from a forest fire billows over the Little River on Thursday, Nov. 17, 2016, in Walland.  

The Appalachian Trail is closed in parts of Georgia and North Carolina. Campfires have been banned in the 655,598-acre Cherokee National Forest that straddles the North Carolina-Tennessee line with stretches both north and south of the Great Smoky Mountains National Forest, which is also closed to burning.

And, the drought and forest fire situation could go on for months, experts say.

“The forecast for December, January and February show the odds of below-normal precipitation are high for the Southeast,” said Matthew Rosencrans, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service’s Climate Prediction Center in Washington, D.C.

Meanwhile, beef cattle aren’t getting their hay in East Tennessee and cattlemen are selling off some stock. Farmers from the cotton fields of north Alabama to the tobacco farms of North Carolina are taking their hits. The Tennessee Valley Authority has cut in half the amount of hydroelectric power it usually generates this time of year from its reservoirs in East Tennessee to hold back water for what may be ahead.

PHOTO: In this Nov. 7, 2016, photo, two major fires burn at the Flipper Bend area atop Walden Ridge, seen from the Montlake neighborhood of Soddy-Daisy, Tenn. 

Even the Christmas tree salesmen are concerned the drought and stress will cause the trees to have a shorter healthy span when they reach living rooms.

“I used to say the trees would stay green (through the holiday season) without a problem,” said Leo Collins, who owns Bluebird Christmas Tree Farm north of Knoxville, “but I’m not so cocky this year.”

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Knox News November 30, 2016 at 1:47 pm

Three dead in Sevier, Tennessee wildfire

Hayes Hickman, and Jamie Satterfield | Knoxville News Sentinel, Nov. 29, 2016

GATLINBURG — Three people were confirmed dead Tuesday after a fire that destroyed more than 150 homes and businesses as flames whipped by high-speed winds raged overnight through town and displaced more than 14,000 residents in an inferno witnesses called unlike any in living memory.

It’s the latest destruction by wildfires that officials estimate have consumed more than 15,000 acres in the Great Smoky Mountains. Smoke alarms still echoed through the empty streets on Tuesday night, almost 24 hours after the town was evacuated.

Fire erupts on the side of The Spur, on Highway 441, on Monday, Nov. 28, 2016.

“This is the largest fire in the state of Tennessee in 100 years,” said Gov. Bill Haslam, who visited the city Tuesday afternoon. Officials offered no details on the deaths other than that they occurred in three separate incidents.

“We do not have further information on them at this time,” Sevier County Mayor Larry Waters said at an afternoon news conference. “We do not have identifications. We are working to identify those folks now.”

Officials imposed a curfew through 6 a.m. Wednesday for Gatlinburg residents as emergency workers braced for forecasts that called for winds of up 60 mph. An evacuation curfew for Pigeon Forge was lifted.

Gatlinburg Mayor Mike Werner, who lost his home and business in the blaze, vowed the city will recover. “Gatlinburg is a very strong, resilient community,” he said. “We will rebuild. We will remain the vibrant tourist community that we are. We are going to be OK.”

Amber Simpson, who volunteers with Smoky Mountain Resort Ministries, helps residents of Gatlinburg.

More than 200 firefighters from across the state were on their way to help douse the wildfires, and the Tennessee Army National Guard planned to dump water onto the flames from a helicopter, with at least three Blackhawk helicopters standing by.

About 100-125 Guardsmen were on the ground in Sevier County as of Tuesday, Capt. Chris Poulopoulos said. “We’ve got guys still volunteering to come,” he said. “Visibility was too low to fly this morning, but we should be flying soon.”

Ken Lewis, manager of Red Cross shelter at Rocky Top Sports World in Gatlinburg, said Wednesday morning that there were 200 people at the shelter, down from a peak of 700 on Tuesday. Lewis said a lot of evacuees have been able to connect with friends and family and find a place to stay.

Inside the shelter there are stacks of food, bottled water, personal hygiene items and diapers. Local restaurants have donated hot prepared food as well.

The shelter also has an abundance of pet food and pet supplies.

“We had trucks and supplies coming in all day long,” Lewis said. He said right now it’s to the point that the shelter has too much and they’re trying to channel some of the items back into the community. “If people want to help, we’ve got everything we need right now,” Lewis said.

He recommended people make donations to the Red Cross or other local community agencies that are assisting people. “That’d be the best thing to help right now,” Lewis said.

Gatlinburg Fire Chief Greg Miller said about 14 buildings remained ablaze in the city early Tuesday, most of them smoldering shells in various stages of collapse. Firefighters and Tennessee Highway Patrol troopers headed from door to door to make sure no victims had been overlooked.

“This is a fire for the history books,” Miller said. “The likes of this has never been seen here. But the worst is definitely over with.”

An aerial view shows Gatlinburg the day after a wildfire hit the city on Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2016, in Sevier County, said Paul Efird/News Sentinel

Fire crews had taken about 14 patients for treatment of fire-related injuries as of Tuesday afternoon, Miller said. Three of those patients were taken to Vanderbilt University Medical Center’s burn unit in Nashville, and another remained under observation with severe burns at the University of Tennessee Medical Center in Knoxville.

More than 2,000 people had been taken to emergency shelters. “We have no reports of missing persons,” Miller said.

The blaze apparently began when embers from a wildfire on nearby Chimney Tops Trail in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park wafted into the Twin Creek and Mynatt Park areas of town Monday night as the already heavy winds doubled in speed, the fire chief said. The resulting flames swept through Gatlinburg in less than a quarter-hour, fanned by winds at speeds that approached 90 mph.

“This is a fire for the history books. The likes of this has never been seen here,” said Gatlinburg Fire Chief Greg Miller. “That’s nowhere to be when you’re trying to fight a fire,” Miller said. “That is hurricane force. Within a span of 15 minutes, we were dispatched to more than 20 structure fires.”

Cassius Cash, superintendent of the national park, said the Chimney Tops fire originally was reported Sunday as covering about 50 acres. By Monday, the fire had grown to engulf 500 acres. “In my 25 years of federal (park) service, I’ve participated in many fires, but none of that could have prepared me for this,” Cash said, calling Monday night’s wind speeds “unprecedented.”

Gatlinburg fire crews had attempted to prepare for the conditions by following various predictive models, but “to be honest, all that got thrown out the window at that point,” the fire chief said.

Residents in the path of the fire began fleeing about 9 p.m. Monday night. “We were just told by the Gatlinburg Fire Department that they had told everybody in Gatlinburg to get out,” said Judy Tucker, director of Sevier County’s E-911 center. “No one’s getting through to anyone. Phones are ringing and not being answered anywhere. It’s chaos.”

As Shari Deason watched the wildfire flames sweep toward Gatlinburg, the evacuation call came. She, her boyfriend Daniel Hensley and her 14-month-old son, William, left everything behind in their motel room for an emergency shelter at the Rocky Top Sports World.

Shari Deason holds 14 month-old son William outside of the Rocky Top Sports Center, serving as a community shelter. “We were watching it, but we didn’t really know how bad it was until somebody said we had to leave,” Deason said. “I didn’t cry last night, and I didn’t cry this morning, but the more I see of all this, I don’t know what I’m going to do.”

More than 14,000 people had been forced to leave Gatlinburg alone, and about 500 from Pigeon Forge, officials estimated.

Deason and Hensley, who arrived in East Tennessee a month ago from Mississippi and were staying at the Bedrock Motel, said they left their motel room without time even to grab diapers for William. “I don’t know if we’ve got a room to go back to,” Deason said. “I don’t know if we’ve got anything to go back to.”

The Sevier County Emergency Management Agency indicated the Westgate Resorts, made up of more than 100 buildings, had been destroyed, and Black Bear Falls was believed to have lost every cabin. Hillbilly Golf, major hotels, a good portion of Regan Drive and countless other businesses and homes were destroyed in the blaze that had firefighters working throughout the night.

Escorting a group of journalists through the scene, Gatlinburg Assistant Police Chief Gary Waldroup said during the height of the fires Monday night visibility had been less than 50 yards.

Sites such as the Mountain Lodge Restaurant and the Gatlinburg Church of Christ were burned to their foundations, while nearby buildings stood largely untouched.

Smoke still hung thick along the Parkway, where the town’s major tourist attractions were left largely intact. “The center of Gatlinburg looks good for now,” said Newmansville Volunteer Fire Department Lt. Bobby Balding. “It’s the apocalypse on both sides (of downtown).”

Most of Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts survived the fire.The longtime crafts campus in downtown Gatlinburg lost three buildings – Hughes Hall and Wild Wing dormitories and a maintenance building, Director of Development Fran Day said Tuesday. The core of the internationally known crafts school survived the fire.

Arrowmont’s iconic, historic Red Barn was threatened but did not burn, Day said. That building was built around the time that the campus began in 1912 as the Pi Beta Phi Settlement School. No one occupied either dormitory because the school had just finished its season of residential workshops.

“It’s kind of stunning that we are in a situation where so many buildings were destroyed and yet Arrowmont is emerging. Not unscathed certainly – those were two major buildings on campus, and we will have to rebuild. But the core of the campus and the historic buildings are there,” Day said.

MAP: Gatlinburg businesses damaged in wildfire.

Arrowmont class offerings won’t have to wait until the dorms are rebuilt because its studio buildings survived, Day said. The school’s five resident artists were safely evacuated, she said. “Right now we’re just trying to get some sense of order and normalcy, and then we can begin to look at what comes next.”

Fire forced Day to run from her home Monday. Her husband, Robert Whittier, had left the house to go bowling. She was sitting with her elderly beagle Oscar looking out a window. “I didn’t see a fire…. And two seconds later a huge gust of wind and the whole mountain around the house was engulfed.”

She threw Oscar in her car, grabbed her purse and drove to a motel out of harm’s way. Tuesday, she learned her home, only about a quarter of a mile from Westgate Condos that burned, survived.

Arrowmont General Manager Bill May posted an update on his Facebook page to worried supporters. “All buildings except Hughes Hall and Wild Wing survived with what appears to be little damage,” May wrote just before 7:30 a.m. “It is raining and winds have died down, which offers hope, but the resources are stretched too thin with this much fire everywhere.”

An estimated 40-50 fire units from volunteer agencies across East and Middle Tennessee were helping fight the fires, with a command center set up at Gatlinburg-Pittman High School.

Structures on fire in Gatlinburg included the Park Vista Hotel, a 16-story hotel on Regan Drive and the Driftwood Apartment complex near the Park Vista that had “been completely inundated,” according to Dean Flener, spokesman for TEMA.

“(The sky) was brown,” said Katie Brittian, manager at the Dress Barn near the LeConte Center. “The whole store smelled like smoke. Ash has been falling from the sky since 3.” The elementary school, Pi Beta Phi, along with the Space Needle and many of the properties on the main stretch were intact. The ski resort Ober Gatlinburg wasn’t touched by fire, although areas around it burned.

Ober Gatlinburg Director for Sales and Marketing Kate Barido said Tuesday that Pete Jucker, who owns the puzzle shop at Ober Gatlinburg, was unable to evacuate from the mountain down Ski Mountain Road. He and some other people who couldn’t get off the mountain spent the night inside a building at the resort.

Barido, her husband Justin Bardio, their 15-month-old son Theodore and their dog fled their Gatlinburg home. Bardio, who is pregnant, grabbed one outfit while Justin grabbed some baby clothes, and they each drove a vehicle. Justin Bardio drove his truck as close as he could Tuesday and then hiked to the couple’s house to find it untouched.

Sara Gentry, director of sales at Westgate Smoky Mountain Resort, said several hundred people had to flee the hotel. She and her four children evacuated their home and headed to Dandridge to her sister’s house. The number of evacuees likely would have been higher had it been the weekend, she noted.

Gentry said she’s been talking to co-workers and friends who have lost their homes to the fire. “This one girl was driving down Ski Mountain (Road) and watching her home burn,” she said. “My kids’ friends have lost their homes. It’s just awful.”

Many evacuees went to shelters in Pigeon Forge. Phil Campbell, the facilities manager at the LeConte Event Center in Pigeon Forge, said the center had taken in 300-400 people Monday night. “We knew we had power here and some places were losing power. We knew we had restrooms and water and a safe place to house people and give them a place to go – that’s why we opened up,” Campbell said.

Allen Sheets of the Knoxville chapter of the American Red Cross said the number of people at the shelter was expected to increase, as trolleys and buses continued to pull up with residents.

Early Tuesday morning Sheets said cots were on the way, but blankets, food and clothes are needed. He said Wal-Mart just made a large donation, and other businesses have been helping throughout the night. He said he’s asking local families to bring supplies they can give to help the people stranded here and at the Pigeon Forge Community Center.

People and their pets evacuate to the Leconte Center right off the Pigeon Forge Parkway. Outside town, about 70 homes in the Wear’s Valley community and another 70 in the Cobbly Nob and Pittman Center communities had been destroyed, Waters said. Evacuations were ordered, but firefighters worried some residents might have been trapped. “It’s going to be hard to recover from this,” Waters said.

LeConte Lodge in the national park was evacuated, and neither the lodge nor the historic Elkmont Campground suffered damage in the fires, according to the park. Ryan Holt, Greene County Volunteer Fire Department coordinator, said his agency rescued three drivers who were trapped in the area of Gatlinburg Falls, a major cabin rental company. Holt said the entire area around Gatlinburg Falls was burning.

PHOTO: The Alamo Steakhouse was lost to out of control wild fires in Gatlinburg causing a mandatory evacuation.

TEMA activated its state emergency operations center in Nashville, with personnel on hand from the state fire marshal’s office, the Tennessee Department of Transportation, the Tennessee Department of Health and others, Flener said. The agency also worked with the fire mutual aid network to pull in firefighters and equipment from other counties, including McMinn County to the southeast.

Sevier and Greene County schools were closed on Tuesday. Cocke County schools ran two hours late. Tremont Institute on the Townsend side of the national park evacuated its campus with no reports of injuries.



SE Wildfire December 2, 2016 at 12:24 am

Unprecedented ‘Super Fires’ Devastate Smoky Mountains, 11 Dead

From Lorraine Chow,, December 1, 2016

Wildfires have devastated eastern Tennessee. The blaze has claimed seven lives, forced about 14,000 people to evacuate and destroyed hundreds of buildings in Sevier County.

The wildfires started Sunday from the Great Smoky Mountains and was carried by nearly 90mph winds into the city of Gatlinburg by Monday. Making matters worse, the strong winds also knocked over power lines, sparking even more fires. National Park Service spokeswoman Dana Soehn told CNN that investigators believe the fire started on a mountain trail and was “human caused.”

As of Wednesday night, the main fire has only been 10 percent contained, fire commanders told NBC News.

More than 17,000 acres in the Great Smoky Mountains have been scorched, causing untold damage to wildlife and other natural resources.

“The Great Smoky Mountains are one of the most biologically diverse places in the United States, partly due to the geologically ancient nature of the landscape, as well as the wet and humid forests covering their slopes and hollows,” Bruce Stein, associate vice president for conservation science and climate adaptation at the National Wildlife Federation, said.

“While fire is a natural phenomenon in Appalachian forests, these extreme, drought-fueled fires are not,” Stein continued. “Rather, they are a glimpse into what many southeastern forests and communities will experience as climate change continues to intensify.”

Indeed, much of the southeastern U.S. has been inundated by wildfires in recent weeks. Record-breaking drought and unseasonably warm temperatures have fueled the region’s devastating wildfires.

As the New York Times pointed out, there’s a clear connection between the wildfires and an ever-warming planet:

“The fires spread through Tennessee as much of the South has been enduring a crippling drought, even though rainfall this week offered some relief. The United States Drought Monitor reported last week that 60 percent of Tennessee was in ‘exceptional’ or ‘extreme’ drought, the two most severe ratings.

“Wildfires, once a seasonal phenomenon, have become a consistent threat, partly because climate change has resulted in drier winters and warmer springs, which combine to pull moisture off the ground and into the air.”

A study in Nature Communications revealed that from 1979 to 2013, wildfire season has lengthened and the global area affected by wildfire has doubled. CNBC also reported that we are entering an era of “super fires” due to climate change causing hotter and drier weather.

“Based on what we know and in which direction the climate is going, yes, we can expect more frequent super fires,” Marko Princevac, a fire expert at the University of California at Riverside, told CNBC. “There is scientific consensus that climate change will lead to much more intense fires, more dry areas.”

The Tennessee wildfires have crept to Pigeon Forge, the home of singer and actress Dolly Parton’s Dollywood. While the theme park was not damaged, Parton released a statement saying that she was heartbroken about the fire damage and had been “praying for all the families affected.”

On Sunday, the Sevier County native released a public service announcement with Smokey Bear to promote wildfire preparedness amidst troubling drought conditions.

“This extended drought has resulted in high wildfire danger,” Parton said. “As dry as it is, please help fire fighters avoid wildfires.”


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