Wildfires in America: Not Just A Western Problem

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The wildfires in the Smoky Mountains rages through Gatlinburg, Tennessee. Getty Images

Great Smoky Mountains National Park has reopened after a wildfire shut it down and spurred evacuations of the nearby resort towns Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg. Authorities arrested two teenagers in connection with the fire, which high winds and long-term extreme drought in the area helped to spread. This latest fire appears to be winding down, but it might not be the end of major wildfires in the Southeast. Steve Pyne, a fire ecologist at Arizona State University, wonders if the fire was a freak incident, or the start of a larger trend of fire-friendly conditions drifting eastward. We talked to Pyne about what's behind the shift and what could be ahead of us. 

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I don't typically think of the Southeast as a region that has fires.

The Southeast is a very active fire landscape. Florida is notorious, a world center for prescribed burning. The state burns about two and a half to three million acres a year, and that’s apart from wildfire. That has then spread out from the coastal plains into the Piedmonts. In some ways the Eastern story isn’t unlike the Western story. It’s just been forgotten. We’ve allowed things to build up again. We’ve allowed communities to spread. In the West, particularly places like California, this becomes very dramatic and it manifests very quickly. In the Southeast it’s slower.

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What’s happening to drive the shift?

Vegetation has grown up, become thick and vulnerable to fire. A lot of traditional burning that had gone on and other land use practices that had helped keep it under wraps have gone as we’ve shifted to a more service and amenities economy in the region. We’re building or reoccupying communities in places, sort of relishing the proximity to nature, but that nature can also harbor a lot of fire risk. I suspect that our fire-fighting capabilities have not escalated according to the risk simply because we haven’t seen these big fires so much, but we’re starting to see it.

This year is obviously exceptional. The drought just made it undeniable. I think we can speak generally that we shouldn’t be surprised. We’ve seen this happen in the West, now in a sense we're seeing the conditions that are moving it to the East.

What areas are most at risk?

The whole coastal plain area, the Southeast. New Jersey has a major issue with the Pinelands. They’ve held it under wraps for a long time, but if they had multiple starts, they might very well lose it. Then you would see a really big fire in the Northeast. We’ll just have to see.

What can we do about it?

For 50 years after the big blowup of 1910, the country adopted a kind of fire exclusion policy, led by the Forest Service. We will try to stop every fire before it can do anything. That failed because we were taking out good fires as well as bad fires. That made the situation worse. In the last 50 years or so, we’ve been trying to find ways to put good fires back in. 

Urban and wildland fires are very different. Every fire you put out in the city is a problem solved. But many fires you put out in wildlands are only problems put off. You have to use very different approaches and mixtures of approaches, and that’s hard. That means you spend a lot of time talking to people, trying to come to some consensus, and there are just times and places where people don’t want to agree. It’s very hard. 

There are templates for community wildfire protection plans. Most of these are not mandated by law, so it’s voluntary, and then you’ve got to deal with all the hemming and hawing and negotiating that goes on with that. It’s complicated. But it’s not so complicated that we can’t cope with it — if we choose.

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