Our North Georgia and Western North Carolina mountain views have become smoky and hazy these days, and on Code Red days we’re told to stay inside, run our ACs, and breathe filtered air. At this time, dozens of fires throughout WNC and North Georgia have burned more than 80,000 acres of forest since mid-October. Among the largest are the Tellico fire, Maple Springs fire, Boteler fire, Party Rock fire, Rock Ridge fire, and Cahutta wilderness fire.
From the standpoint of ecology, fire is a long-overdue natural process on many mountain slopes, and these fires will benefit an array of species. But these fires are a prime example that there can be too much of a good thing. These wildfires burn fast, and are difficult to fight. They come at a time of extreme drought, when weather conditions push and hold the smoke around our mountain valleys. Businesses that depend on tourism and outdoor recreationalists are suffering. Homes are being evacuated. While arson is suspected to be the direct cause, unprecedented dry weather conditions have created conditions for wildfires of a size not seen in generations. In WNC and North Georgia, locations from Marion, NC westward are experiencing the warmest and driest autumn on record, with only 1.3 inches of rain since August 21st. This will likely be the driest 90-day period on record for the region, and there is no end in sight. Long-range weather forecasts predict dry weather until at least mid-December, and without significant snow or rain, the fire danger will continue deep into the winter.
Because of the sheer quantity of fire, and the weather conditions they are burning in, the smoke is staying close to the ground and causing major health impacts. Code-red air quality days have been called around the region from Atlanta to Kentucky. Code-red means that it is not safe for anyone particularly elderly, children, and those with breathing ailments, to be outside for extended periods. As the season progresses, even fires that have little activity could flare back up as dry, falling leaves drop onto smoldering hot-spots.
Ironically, another part of the problem is that there hasn’t been enough of the right kind of fire. The Paddy’s Creek fire on the western side of Linville Gorge hasn’t gotten nearly as much press, and with good reason. That fire started on October 25th and was completely contained two days later. The blaze started from an abandoned campfire and spread into the woods. Fortunately, those woods have had several controlled burns as part of the Grandfather Restoration Project, a collaborative project that MountainTrue and dozens of other organizations helped to found in 2012. The Paddy’s Creek fire was held to just 11 acres despite the steep and rugged terrain because controlled burns decreased fuel loads.
The fires that are raging through our region now are so difficult to stop in part because they are moving through dry, dense vegetation that hasn’t burned in 50 – 100 years. Another benefit of controlled burns is that they are planned in weather conditions where smoke is lifted high into the atmosphere. This fire season should be a wake-up call. The frequency and severity of droughts and wildfires are sure to increase. People are generally adaptable, and our communities can adapt to the changing conditions if we take collective action. On our public lands, efforts like the Grandfather NC Restoration Project show a way forward. By returning fire to the mountain slopes and ridges where it was historically common before we started suppressing it, we can reduce dangerous fuel loads and improve plant communities and wildlife habitat at the same time.
Communities must become “Firewise” by adopting building and landscaping practices that reduce the risk of fire to our homes, and discouraging construction and development where fire risks are high – steep slopes, dry ridges, and rocky areas. It is extremely difficult to fight fire on steep slopes, and when firefighters attempt to save homes in steep terrain it puts their lives in jeopardy. There is a growing awareness that we need to live within our means and maintain an appropriate relationship with the natural world. If we don’t plan for the changes ahead, the next drought will be worse: bigger crop failures, more severe fires, more economic losses and mounting human suffering. If we don’t prepare, we have no one to blame but ourselves. The scale of the problem demands a collective response. We can all do our part by continually maintaining our property to reduce the risk of wildfire which will minimize property damage when a wildfire approaches.
We have been telling you for years that it’s not a matter of IF a wildfire happens but WHEN and the when is now. Are you prepared for the approaching wildfire that could be just over the ridge and headed your way!
Are you Firewise?