The nation’s most visited national park, The Great Smoky Mountains National Park, is thriving ecologically only two years after wildfires devastated the area.
In 2016, wildfires ignited across Sevier County, burning 11,410 acres in the GSMNP and 6,494 acres outside the park. These scorched acres have given way to meadows of new growth.
Fires, usually in the form of prescribed burns, are used as a tool for maintaining the natural landscape. Fire is a natural process on which some wildlife depends.
Recycling nutrients and conditioning the forest floor for species regeneration are just two of the positive effects of woodland fires. Fires can be utilized in the GSMNP as a resource management tool.
A document from the National Park Service recognizes that prescribed burns have not been frequently used in the GSMNP, stating, “For most of the history of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the National Park Service has suppressed all forest fires within park boundaries. However, extensive research by scientists in the southern Appalachians and elsewhere has gradually proven the importance of fire in maintaining healthy ecosystems.”
Prescribed burns in the Cades Cove area have been used to reduce undesired woody species, maintain open meadows, and preserve native habitats. The most common use of prescribed burns is reducing nonnative plant species.
A dozen species of plants or animals have been identified as benefiting from fire exposure. For example, pine-oak and oak forests benefit from occasional fires because they increase the reproductive success of the trees. These trees support populations of black bear, white-tail deer, wild turkey, and birds.
The areas of the mountains that look most damaged are actually the result of the wooly adelgid, an invasive insect wiping out hemlock tree populations. Today, there are scarce incidences of observable woodland damage from the 2016 wildfires.
During the time of the fires, east Tenn. was experiencing a drought with moisture levels low and humidity dropping. The dry landscape became fuel for the multiple fires that broke out across mountains.