Raging wildfires in Georgia and across the Southeast a new normal?

November 21, 2016, Clayton: At first glance the weathervane on the top of a barn appears to be a bear fleeing the Rock Mountain Fire as it burns across the top of ridge pole above Betty‰Û(TM)s Creek Road where home owners are under a pre-evacuation order as the fire approaches the area on Monday night, Nov. 21, 2016, just north of Clayton. Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com
November 21, 2016, Clayton: At first glance the weathervane on the top of a barn appears to be a bear fleeing the Rock Mountain Fire as it burns across the top of ridge pole above Betty‰Û(TM)s Creek Road where home owners are under a pre-evacuation order as the fire approaches the area on Monday night, Nov. 21, 2016, just north of Clayton. Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com

Credit: Curtis Compton

Credit: Curtis Compton

Wildfires roared through Georgia and the Southeast this fall with an unexpected ferocity that stunned firefighters and sent residents and tourists scrambling for their lives. The fires killed more than a dozen people, sent hundreds to the hospital and forced residents to abandon their homes with little more than the clothes on their backs.

It's an unfamiliar scene for this region, more common to the devastating wildfires out West. Across the Southeast, 1.4 million acres have burned so far this year. That's more than double the size of the entire state of Rhode Island. It's also nearly three times the number from last year and the highest total since 2011. Thick smoke from recent blazes in North Georgia fouled the air and cancelled things like school events as far away as metro Atlanta.

And it all comes with a significant price tag: Georgia has spent $3.1 million fighting fires so far this fiscal year, well above previous years.

Recent rain has helped extinguish many of the worst fires and those still burning have been largely contained. But a scarred landscape remains. And the bad wildfire season has people wondering, and worrying. Is this year an anomaly? Or will this be the new normal?

There’s no set answer, say wildfire experts. But officials see some troubling trends, both nationally and here at home: longer wildfire seasons and large fires that are more frequent, severe and costly. The conditions driving that address more than just droughts and climate change, a political hot potato sure to spur debate. There’s also insect and disease infestations, and increasing development near woodland areas, according to the U.S. Forest Service.

One key question is whether droughts will persist, like the one this year that turned forestland to parched kindling. Forest Service officials say they see warming temperatures here, which can increase the chance of droughts. But weather experts also say they expect more precipitation down the line in the typically humid Southeast.

Then there’s the human factor. Population growth in the Southeast has outpaced any other region in the country. That means more people living close to the woods, increasing the odds of human error causing fires. A charcoal grill, a clumsy mistake and some wind can spread trouble far and wide. And then there is arson. Two juvenile have been charged with aggravated arson in connection with the fire in Gatlinburg, Tenn. that left 14 dead. Authorities also suspect arson as the cause of the Rock Mountain fire in North Georgia that consumed some 25,000 acres.

Just how bad was this year? Look at just one day, Nov. 30. There were 18 major fires burning 144,000 acres in the Southeast. Around the same time last year, there were two major fires and both were fully contained, according to the Forest Service.

“We always used to think in terms of fire seasons and the seasonality of some of these fire events,” said Larry Sutton, assistant director for operations for the Forest Service’s fire and aviation management program. “We are really looking at year-round fire seasons that could crop up anywhere at any time.”

‘A valid conversation’

Behind all the stats and science and climate debate are people like Janie Thompson. She fled the onrushing flames just in time, with little more than “my dog and the clothes on my back.” She lives in a cabin up against the woods in Gatlinburg, Tenn. The city is a popular tourist destination for metro Atlantans, a place where good times are the currency of the realm. The city, along with nearby Pigeon Forge, is lined with all sorts of amusement parks and carnival creations such as Dollywood, the Titanic Museum and the Hatfield and McCoy dinner theater.

It’s a schmaltzy collection of Americana entertainment, a Smoky Mountain town with bumper cars and cowboy shows, replete with an aquarium and an animal show featuring trained pigs, parrots, housecats, dogs and a mini-donkey.

But late last month it became ground zero for the Southeast wildfires. Aside from killing 14 people, they injured 150 others and damaged more than 2,000 homes, businesses and other structures. Thompson spent days in a rec center converted into an emergency shelter. She was upset that the city had not better prepared for such tragedy.

“They should have warned us,” she said. She worries it could happen again. “They didn’t give us enough notice to get out.”

Gail Smith, 59, who also relocated to the shelter, remembered seeing the burning in the distance, advancing through the trees to her home at a frightening pace. Like many in Gatlinburg, her place also sits cheek-to-jowl with the woods. She was shocked that such a big fire occurred there.

“We think of these things happening in California, not here” she said. Still, she worries it could happen again. “Maybe they need to take additional precautions,” she said.

Public officials, for their part, say they did all they could. The wildfires flared so suddenly, driven by gusts up to 80 mph, that they say they were caught off guard. The fire burned some 15,000 acres.

Larry Waters, mayor of Sevier County, called it a once-in-a-lifetime event. He does not believe the fires reflects any kind of trend.

“The exact conditions had to be in place,” he said. “I’ve been here 63 years. I don’t expect to see it again.”

John Mathews, the county head of emergency management, called it a “perfect storm,” an exceptionally long drought that turned the ground cover to kindling, and high winds that rapidly spread the fire and made it harder to contain. Large wildfires are nothing new in this area, he said, coming a couple of times a year.

“Three years ago we lost 80 cabins,” Mathews said.

But this was a far bigger beast. He also does not believe this is an indication of a new normal. Some residents agree with that.

Becky and Richard Williams had come home to Gatlinburg that day from visiting their daughter in Texas. They were settling back in, doing laundry and so forth, when the smoke in the air thickened. Then it turned kind of orange, and then they saw the house nearby was on fire.

“We panicked,” Becky said.

Days later they were in the shelter thinking about the things they lost, sentimental, irreplaceable things: original artwork by Richard’s great aunt, who illustrated books; their daughter’s wedding dress; stuff from their childhoods.

“Everybody says they’ve never seen anything like this,” he said. “I think this is such a crazy occurrence. I think it was just a bad weather pattern.”

Cassius Cash was not so dismissive. He’s the superintendent for the Great Smoky Mountains National Park there. Asked by a reporter whether this might be a sign of change, Cash responded, “It will be a discussion we have. It’s a valid conversation.”

Gatlinburg and the Great Smoky Mountain National Park reopened Friday, 11 days after the blaze ripped through the area.

Looking ahead

Here in Georgia, people were evacuated and firefighting resources were strained, at times exhausted. Fire agencies assisted each other. Some 30 inmates from five different prisons were reportedly deployed to clear combustible materials around homes in Dade County. Cherokee and Forsyth county firefighters relieved Dade crews, as well.

Towns County officials called the Smyrna Fire Department for help battling the flames. Crews rotated 24-hours shifts. Looking back, Towns Fire Chief Harold Copeland all but cussed the drought. More than a month with barely any rain left the ground cover downright “crispy,” he said. Worse, the drought conspired to thwart the firefighting efforts and helped spread the blaze. Creeks that would have been barriers to block the fire, were bone dry. Bereft of rain, the trees held onto their leaves longer into the season. So even after bulldozers cleared areas to create safe fire lines, additional leaves fell over them, which helped spread the blaze, he said.

The county has only about 11,000 residents and a volunteer fire department. It spent about $12,000 of its budget knocking down the flames, which was a significant monetary hit, he said.

Looking ahead, county emergency management director Rickey Mathis said he well could see “more severe weather of all kinds, hurricanes, tornadoes, all those things.”

“We have to stress to the public that everybody needs to be more prepared,” said Mathis.

County officials have begun stressing this during public meetings: People need evacuation plans from their homes. They have to have grab-and-go bags filled with medications and such. Family members need to know where to meet up if they’re separated.

Over in Rabun County, which saw some of the biggest wildfires in the state, Assistant Fire Chief Justin Upchurch said he can’t speak to this issue of global warming. But droughts and wildfires have occurred in the past, and they will again, he said. In a way, this year’s fires could make any in the future less intense, he said. Fire can be helpful because it clears away the fallen branches and leaves.

“The fuel won’t be there,” Upchurch said.

The county is seeing more people move closer to the woods. That heightens the possibility of human-caused fires. It also means more people might need help in an emergency.

Today, 118,083 Southeastern communities are considered at risk from wildfire, according to The National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy Report. Wildfire threat to homes is consistently above average due to the number and density of homes throughout the Southeast, the report said.

Difficult to predict

It’s unclear what, if anything, officials will do to combat fires in the future.

Homeowners, however, can help prevent the spread of wildfires, experts say, by creating 100-foot “defensible spaces” around their houses. That means they should clear dead leaves, fallen tree branches, construction materials and other flammable debris and properly label and store any excess fuel in safe places.

Prescribed burning — or intentionally setting fires to clear away potential fuel sources such as dead leaves and fallen branches — is also particularly helpful, according to the Georgia Forestry Commission. State officials oversee such burning on 1.2 million to 1.5 million acres a year and would like to see that doubled going forward.

“It is hands down the most cost-effective and efficient tool that we have in our tool bag for managing healthy forests,” said Robert Farris, the state forester and the commission’s director. “Prescribed burning helps keep our forests healthy. It is beneficial to wildlife. It helps remove fuel buildups. So when fires do occur, there is less fuel to burn. They burn less intensely.”

A recent state audit faulted some record keeping and management issues related to prescribed burns, but Georgia environmental officials said in the report they were addressing them.

Taxpayers, meanwhile, are spending more to put out wildfires. In Georgia, for example, taxpayers have spent $3.1 million so far this fiscal year suppressing fires, a big bump over recent years such as the $1.1 million spent in fiscal 2013, according to the commission. Since fiscal year 2002, the U.S. Forest Service has overspent its national firefighting budgets in all but two years and has transferred money from other programs to cover those costs eight times. The agency had a $1.6 billion budget for wildfire suppression last fiscal year, up from $1 billion the year before.

At the same time, predicting wildfires can be a frustrating exercise. Across the nation and in the Southeast, the annual numbers of fires and acres burned have been going up and down.

“We had this kind of fire season in the fall in the Southeast this year. We may not have that again next year there,” said Sutton of the U.S. Forest Service.

“So, while we might say that the trend is toward larger and more severe fires and longer fire seasons and all that sort of thing, it is still not entirely predictable exactly where it is going to occur.”

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