UT professor warns about fire dangers for those living in Smoky Mountains

Sidney James Mountain Lodge in Gatlinburg, Tennessee (Credit: Ashley Biggens via WATE ReportIt!)

KNOXVILLE (WATE) – A University of Tennessee professor warned homeowners about the dangers of living in the Smoky Mountains. Henri Grissino-Mayer studies the history of forest fires and believes another big wildfire could happen.

Grissino-Mayer said trees tell a story. The burn scars on a tree trunk keeps a record, each burn line representing a different wildfire. He said fires used to happen pretty frequently, until the 1930s. Fires in the southeast stopped in 1934. He said that’s when fire suppression techniques became more common. He called it the Smokey Bear effect.

“We saw the evidence of this on November 28,” said Grissino-Mayer.

Eighty years worth of unburnt fuel were left on the forest floor before the Gatlinburg fires. It was a catastrophic event Grissino-Mayer worried would happen one day.

“Without fire, the trees are much more dense and the forests are choked with fuel,” he said.

Previous story: University of Tennessee professor predicted Gatlinburg wildfire

Henri Grissino-Mayer

He said this makes the Smoky Mountains a fire prone ecosystem. He said it can only be described as an explosive community. Now, it is a place in which homeowners are trying to rebuild.

“You’ve got explosive fuels right up against the edge of these communities,” he said.

According to him, homes and business are not only surrounded by fuel but they are also made of it. An ordinance signed by the City of Gatlinburg in January allowed structures to be rebuilt the same way.

“They are all packed together as tightly as they were. It’s fire dominoes. They will just go up in smoke,” said Grissino-Mayer.

He saw something similar happen in 2013. A fire in Pigeon Forge destroyed dozens of cabins.

“And guess what? They’re rebuilding,” said Grissino-Mayer.

His hope was that people will realize what they are living in. He feared something like this will happen again.

“Eventually, nature is going to say, ‘Got to do something with all these fuels. Time to burn them,” he said.

Grissino-Mayer did not say whether or not he would live in Gatlinburg. However, he said if he were to, he would think about using composite materials that are more fire resistant. He also hoped the City of Gatlinburg passes an ordinance that would prevent any of these fire dominoes.

WATE 6 On Your Side reached out to Sevier County for their comment on the professor’s fears. They said, “Sevier County adheres to the 2012 International Building Codes, which are the same codes Knox County uses.” The City of Gatlinburg has not yet responded to a request for comment.

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