The recent Sharp Fire that burned more than 7,500 acres in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park near Bryson City was the largest wildfire in the park’s history. The fire, believed to have been deliberately set near Noland Divide Trail on Nov.11, burned for nearly two weeks.
More than 200 firefighters from several states assisted in suppressing the Sharp Fire. Damage from the fire — ignited during tinderbox conditions — was minimal, and park service officials estimate that only about $600,000 was spent containing it.
Many factors — including the condition of the forest, operational logistics and suppression techniques — make the Sharp Fire a good backdrop for the discussion of wildfire in the Southern Appalachians and other wildlands. Wilderness managers use a combination of techniques to battle wildfires, including letting them burn and suppressing them. At this point there is no conclusive scientific evidence as to which is better for the ecosystem.
History of wildfire in the Southern Appalachians
Fire has always been present in the ecosystem, as long as there has been lightning. Many of the forest ecosystems in the arid West and along the Gulf and Atlantic coastal plains — where lightning fires are common — evolved as fire-dependent communities.
The Appalachians, though, with their high precipitation and high moisture content are not as susceptible to lightning fires. Records show the Great Smoky Mountains National Park averages just two lightning fires per year. Ancient pollen and charcoal samples from pond and bog sediments, however, point to a time when there was a much greater frequency of fire in the Southern Appalachians. This higher frequency of fire is attributed to anthropogenic — human-caused — activity.
The use of fire by Native Americans in the Southern Appalachians at the time of first contact by Europeans is well documented. By this time, American Indians were using fire to create agricultural fields, keep travel corridors open, enhance hunting, and protect villages from naturally occurring wildfire.
What is not clear — and is currently a much-debated issue in the scientific community — is the extent to which fire was used by pre-Colombian native peoples in the Southern Appalachians. There are those proponents like Stephen Pyne of Arizona State University, Ed Buckner, professor emeritus of the University of Tennessee, Paul and Hazel Delcourt of the University of Tennessee and others who posit the theory that aboriginal peoples of the Southern Appalachians used fire extensively, to the extent of managing and manipulating entire ecosystems across the region. Delcourt believes Native Americans selectively used fire to concentrate pure stands of oak, hickory, walnut and chestnut in the uplands. According to Delcourt these early peoples, “used fire on an order of magnitude that fundamentally reorganized the ecosystem.”
Pyne writes: “Fire’s influence on the environment, however, extended beyond its valued service to humans, an aid-de-camp to wandering hominids. It was applied directly to the landscape, and it was this capacity that defined humanity’s special ecological niche, that made fire something more than a surrogate for talons, fangs, fleetness or muscles. Anthropogenic fire endowed whole ecosystems, not merely a species. Anthropogenic fire reshaped the structure and composition of landscapes, recalibrated their dynamics, reset their timings of growth and decay. Humans’ ability to manipulate fuels redesigned the environment within which fire — either theirs or nature’s — had to operate.”
Buckner believes the pre-Colombian landscape was most likely a mosaic of open woodlands, grasslands and some closed forests. He believes the immense closed eastern forests Europeans referred to in the 1600s were actually the result of fire being taken out of the ecosystem.
Buckner believes native populations in the Americas before contact with Europeans rivaled those of Western Europe. The theory is that early contact with Europeans introduced smallpox and other diseases to indigenous peoples that reduced populations by 90 percent in the 1500s. As a result, fields converted to forests and understory overtook open woodlands.
Quentin Bass, an archaeologist in the Cherokee National Forest in Tennessee, disputes those estimates of population density. Bass believes that during the zenith of Native American population no more than 40,000 individuals inhabited the 50 million or so acres of the Southern Appalachians.
“And these were stone-age people with no machines, no plows, no draft animals and no livestock,” Bass said. It’s inconceivable that those people under those conditions could radically redesign the ecosystems of the Southern Appalachians, he said.
Bass believes that looking at old-growth Appalachian forests is like “looking at forever.” According to Bass, forest types and ecosystems of the Southern Appalachians are dependent on slope, aspect, elevation, edaphic factors and canopy type.
“These things are permanent,” he said.
“Cove forests hardly ever burn, moisture content is too high and rapid decay prevents fuel build up,” Bass said.
Robert Zahner, professor emeritus from Clemson University concurs with Bass,.
“I don’t believe fire had much to do with shaping Appalachian forests except for the dry southern slopes and ridges,” he said.
Zahner and Bass would both agree that Native Americans certainly used fire. But they argue it was localized, in bottomlands around villages. Zahner who lives part time in Highlands where Delcourt researched a bog in Horse Cove, believes those results (evidence of cyclic burning over the past 4,000 years) are accurate. He believes, however, those results are specific for that site — a bottomland valley — and can not be accurately extrapolated across the Appalachians.
Zahner also fairly bristles at the mention of all the anecdotal references to the open woodlands of Western North Carolina recorded by William Bartram, in the 1700s.
“I’ve read every word I could get my hands on that Bartram ever wrote. The best I can make out is that Bartram spent three to five days in the area, along the Little Tennessee River.”
According to Zahner, the scenes Bartram depicted would be of the extensive Cherokee villages that existed in those areas at those times.
The ecology of fire in the Southern Appalachians
Even scientists with diverse opinions agree there are some places within the Southern Appalachians where fire is a welcomed part of the natural scheme of things. Fire has always been a component of xeric southern slopes and ridges. With the exclusion and suppression of fire in recent times, table top, Virginia and short-leaf pine ecosystems are disappearing from the Southern Appalachian landscape.
Gary Kauffman, a U.S. Forest Service botanist who works in the Nantahala National Forest, believes fire will have to be reintroduced in some manner to restore these ecosystems. He said when these ecosystems are healthy, they promote a greater diversity of understory and herbs. Native grasses like little bluestem, Indian grass and big bluestem appear to respond well to periodic burning.
Other rare plants in the region that respond to fire include whiteleaf sunflower, purple fringeless orchid, mountain catchfly and goldenseal.
According to Kauffman, burning would also be beneficial to maintaining some Appalachian oak forests. According to reports from a recent “Workshop on Fire, People, and the Central Hardwoods” held in Kentucky, “oaks and pines have been replaced by late-successional, fire-sensitive species, such as maples.”
While Kauffman touts the benefits of fire as a management tool and believes it to be a natural component of some Appalachian environments, he is also cautious: “It is a tool, we have to monitor it.”
Kauffman would like to see more detailed studies of the results of prescribed burns across different ecosystems. He would agree that fire probably plays no role in cove forests and/or mesic forests on north facing slopes in the Appalachians, but it could and should have an integral role in those specific habitats where it was once a prominent factor.
Prescribed burning was once widely eschewed by environmentalist and preservations as being a tool used by wildlife managers and foresters to manipulate habitats for specific results. But as more research continues to be done, the restoration potential of fire is receiving more attention.
Prescribed fires, however, are still fires and are potentially dangerous. The monstrous Los Alamos fire of 2000 was a prescribed burn gone awry.
Fire suppression in the Southern Appalachians
While the debate rages over the benefits and dangers of fires in the environment, they continue to occur. Fire managers — whether at the federal, state or local level — still must respond to fires.
On Nov. 10, two distinct plumes of smoke were spotted near the Noland Divide Trail in the GSMNP by N.C. Forest Service spotters. The park was notified and immediately responded. Fire crews began to create a fire line along the southern edge of the fire. The fire management team began to plan a suppression strategy for what became known as the Sharp Fire.
Because of funding constraints, fire fighting agencies across the country have had to come up with creative solutions for battling wildfires. According to Robin Kastler of the USFS, all federal wildland fire agencies and the Association of State Foresters are part of the National Wildfire Coordinating Group (NWCG). This group provides a network and logistics for sharing firefighting resources nationwide.
Leon Konz, chief fire officer for the GSMNP, said the park fire management team decided on Nov. 12 — after studying variables like resources needed to fight the fire, continued dry conditions and the possibility of other ignitions — to contact NWCG for assistance.
On Nov. 14, a fire incident management team made up of members from state and county agencies in Florida and Texas arrived on the scene. This team spent a transition day with the park’s fire team and then assumed responsibilities for suppressing the fire.
Konz said the NWCG is an amazing network. Because of standardized training, fire managers are assured they will get qualified personnel through the organization.
The recent discussions about fire’s role in the environment has given agencies some leeway in addressing naturally caused fires. Policy, however, dictates that any human caused wildfire be suppressed.
Konz said the first rule in fire suppression is human safety. Firefighters are mandated to fight the fire as aggressively as possible while insuring the safety or the firefighters. Dangers to public and private property receive high priority. Fires are to be fought in the safest, most economical manner possible to attain the desired results.
While some expressed dismay at what they considered the non-agressive suppression of the Sharp Fire, Konz and operations chief Greg Cox of Florida said the fire was addressed in the safest, most efficient way possible.
On reconnaissance information gained from fire analyst David Kerr of California and park staff, the incident management team decided to establish the north control line along Pole Road Creek Trail. According to the team’s fire information officer, Tracie Bowen, because of treacherous terrain and high fuel load it would have been unsafe to attack the fire from any other locale.
The efforts of the 200 firefighters who battled the Sharp blaze and the incident team’s planning paid off. The fire was contained within the initial control line and by Nov. 24 the fire was controlled.
GSMNP fire ecologist Bob Dellinger said there was minimal resource damage due to the Sharp Fire. In fact, according to Dellinger “it will help restore the oak forests to a more natural state.”
Perhaps studying the effects of the Sharp Fire will provide insight into how fire might be applied to the landscape in the future.