Author(s): Lucian Deaton. Published on March 1, 2017.

Living With It

How the destruction in Tennessee is a reminder that we need to learn to coexist with wildfire

Could the wildfires that brought destruction to Gatlinburg, Tennessee, and surrounding communities late last year have been prevented?

As the fires raged, the Knoxville News Sentinel highlighted a decade of research by Henri D. Grissino-Mayer, a professor of geography at the University of Tennessee, that concluded the fires could not have been stopped. Gatlinburg’s proximity to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, he argued, made it an inevitable target for wildfire, a natural ecological process that many wildlands rely on for their health.

Grissino-Mayer’s conclusions made me think about the uniqueness of the fire problem as it relates to wildfire. Almost every other NFPA risk-reduction effort—from public education campaigns to the vast majority of NFPA codes and standards—seek the complete elimination of fire from the safety equation. In the case of wildfire, though, our strategies have to acknowledge that fire must exist, to some extent, as a critical part of a healthy, natural process.

Throughout history, our landscapes have been shaped by naturally occurring wildfires, which have helped maintain the health of wildlands—forests, grasslands, swamps, and more—by regulating the amount of vegetation, its density, and other factors such as ground water absorption. But as residential and commercial development have spread out further into these areas, the notion of letting wildfires burn has become untenable. When a forest becomes someone’s backyard, the preference is usually to prevent the backyard from burning.

As a result, our country has pursued a long policy history of fire suppression on managed lands, especially since the 1950s. Over time, these suppression efforts have unbalanced the natural fire ecology in forests, causing them to become overgrown compared to their natural state. David Bowman, an Australian biologist, calls this the “fire suppression paradox”—putting out the most recent fire only means that the next one will be larger, and the next one after that larger yet. We are reaching the point where we no longer have the resources or budgets to keep up. Forest overgrowth is as much of an issue in Tennessee as it is in Colorado or California and was a significant factor in the rapid growth and intensity of the wildfires that overran Gatlinburg in November.

NFPA’s vision for the elimination of death, injury, property, and economic loss due to fire may ironically be achieved in the wildlands only by permitting fires to occur. The challenge comes in safeguarding what stands in the fire’s path and controlling how intensely the fire burns, which is achieved with proper land management and cooperation between environmentalists, industry, government, and other stakeholders. How the Trump Administration addresses land access and use, forest health, and logging are issues that will influence this national debate. One thing is clear: The status quo isn’t good enough. “If we don’t manage the forests for wildfire, nature will,” Grissino-Mayer told the News Sentinel. It’s an observation worth remembering.

It’s also important to remember that wildfire became a very human issue in Tennessee. The fire resulted in the loss of over 2,400 homes, businesses, and related structures, as well as an estimated 175 injuries and, tragically, 14 deaths. The families of those 14 individuals face a future forever changed by wildfire, as countless others rebuild homes and businesses. You can help. I encourage you to take a moment to visit the Sevier County relief organization, where you can turn advocacy into action. There are other assistance efforts for those affected that you can find online by simply searching for “Gatlinburg fire support.”

LUCIAN DEATON is a project manager in NFPA’s Wildfire Division.