By Brad Hicks
It was as if the fog, known to drape Unicoi County’s mountains, had descended from its elevated perch.
From Flag Pond to the Town of Unicoi, a thick haze blanketed Unicoi County on Tuesday, Nov. 8. The scent was unmistakable. Something, somewhere, was burning.
The evening before, a forest fire had been reported on property along Tumbling Creek Road, off 19-W in the south end of the county. This fire, according to officials with the U.S. Forest Service, started on around 70 acres of private property after the property’s owner dumped hot ashes from a stove in the woods near his home.
Because the blaze directly threatened nearby Cherokee National Forest land and structures in the area, the response from the U.S. Forest Service and Tennessee Division of Forestry was swift.
By the afternoon of Tuesday, Nov. 8, the Tumbling Creek fire had been 100 percent contained, halted at 47 acres. No structures were damaged. Still, there were signs of the fire’s presence. Leaves covering the woods were scorched. Stumps, foliage and the bottom of some trees were charred. Days after the fire was first reported, patches of smoke emanating from the floor of the forest could be observed.
The fire, according to Forest Service officials, could have been much worse. But, due to plenty of preparation, coordination and cooperation, the fire was held in check.
Recent dry conditions could have exacerbated the fire, according to Valerya Hyrne, support services supervisor with the Cherokee National Forest Watauga Ranger District. In mid-October, the district went on “severity” in anticipation of wildfires. Hyrne said this designation will likely continue through at least the end of this month due to an unfavorable weather forecast.
“There’s not a lot of rain or precipitation in the forecast through the end of November, so we will keep working in severity,” she said.
“Because of the drought, we have been in severity, which means that the conditions make it very likely for fire to happen,” Hyrne said. “We want to have additional resources which means additional people around in case we need help.”
According to the National Integrated Drought Information System, the region, middle Tennessee and much of western North Carolina remain in extreme drought conditions. According to the National Weather Service, Erwin has experienced less than 1 inch of precipitation over the past 30 days, well below the 2 to 3 inches normally seen this time of year.
Current conditions prompted the U.S. Forest Service on Friday to issue a fire ban for the Cherokee National Forest.
“The U.S. Forest Service is implementing a TOTAL FIRE BAN for the Cherokee National Forest in east Tennessee due to the extremely dry conditions, very high fire danger, and little chance of rain in the immediate forecast,” a notice issued by the Forest Service states.
The ban restricts the building, maintaining, attending or using a fire, charcoal or stove fire inside or outside developed recreation sites, and it restricts smoking, except within an enclosed vehicle or building, or developed recreation site, or while stopped in an area at least 3 feet in diameter that is barren or cleared of all flammable material.
“The total fire ban was necessary because of current conditions and the potential for wild fire,” Cherokee National Forest Supervisor JaSal Morris stated. “I want to remind national forest visitors that this ban applies to all areas of the Cherokee National Forest, including developed recreation areas. Your understanding and cooperation is appreciated.”
On Monday, Gov. Bill Haslam declared a regional ban on burning in 51 counties in response to the ongoing drought and wildfires throughout middle and east Tennessee. Unicoi County is among the counties listed.
“Effective immediately, residents in counties covered by the regional ban are not permitted to conduct any open-air burning,” a release announcing Haslam’s declaration states. “The ban includes campfires, and burning of brush, vegetation, household waste or construction debris.”
This ban will remain in effect until Dec. 15.
According to the governor’s office, the Tennessee Division of Forestry is currently fighting 67 wildfires across approximately 16,000 acres in the Cumberland and East Tennessee districts.
According to the U.S. Forest Service, there are approximately 125 firefighters and support personnel assigned to wildfires or positioned for initial response to new fires in the Cherokee National Forest. Since March, there have been more than 70 fires that have burned more than 8,900 acres in the Cherokee National Forest or on adjacent land that posed a threat to the national forest land.
When a severity designation is issued, Forest Service officials work seven days a week, keeping an eye on conditions and prepared to respond at a moment’s notice. This time of year is also wildfire season in this part of the country, so out-of-state resources are called to Forest Service districts throughout the South to help respond to fires as they occur. In the summer, crews from this region are sometimes sent out West in anticipation of wildfires there.
These resources are obtained through a nationwide database the Forest Service maintains, which allows Forest Service districts to request fire crews and individual resources when needed.
“When we need a resource, we go to this database and we order crews,” Hyrne said. “They may be from, like, Asheville, or they may come from as far away as Oklahoma, California, depending on who or what’s available.”
Prior to the occurrence of the Tumbling Creek Fire, firefighting crews from Oklahoma, Idaho, Illinois and California all made their way to districts within the north end of the Cherokee National Forest, which runs from Cocke County north to the Virginia state line.
Crews from Oklahoma and Illinois assisted with the fire in Tumbling Creek, Hyrne said.
The majority of out-of-state resources requested to assist with fires on this end of the Cherokee National Forest are staged at the North Zone Fire Center located in the Town of Unicoi.
“They may stay or they may be moved, depending on where the need is,” Hyrne said.
But Hyrne said the Tumbling Creek fire was not the main culprit in the smoke observed throughout Unicoi County last week. More than a dozen wildfires burned in western North Carolina at the time, and smoke from those fires drifted across the state line, settling into this region on Tennessee.
“How the weather conditions were and the front moving in, that made the smoke just travel north onto us,” Hyrne said.
Wildfires have been reported throughout the state. Regionally, crews have worked to combat wildfires in Hawkins County, Carter County and Sullivan County, among others.
Fires throughout the region are also having an impact on air quality. According to airnow.gov, the Air Quality Index for Unicoi County is currently categorized as Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups, meaning those with lung disease, older adults and children are at greater risk of experiencing the effects of the diminished air quality.
Robert Rhinehart, public information officer with the U.S. Forest Service, said that although the fire in the Tumbling Creek area was manmade, it is still categorized as a wildfire. To combat the fire, it was first observed from the air. Hyrne said a helicopter flew over the area so crews could get an idea of where the fire was going and where they should be placed to most effectively combat the fire, and to map out containment lines.
Rhinehart said fires want to burn up hill, so crews will usually work to establish a containment line across the top of a ridge and two flank lines along the left and right sides of the fire area. The fire lines may be dug out by hand using rakes, shovels or an axe-like tool known as a Pulaski. Crews may also use dozers to dig fire lines, which is a barrier scraped down to mineral soil with the goal of taking away a fire’s fuel.
Crews responding the Tumbling Creek fire were fortunate in that a dirt logging road ran through the forested area, serving as its own fire line.
Along with the installation of fire lines, crews also attempted to burn out the fire. Burn out, according to the Forest Service, is intentionally setting a fire inside a control line to either widen it or consume fuel between the edge of the fire and the control line. Essentially, this means burning up materials that would allow the wildfire to grow and spread.
“To only have to establish a line on one flank is a banner day in the neighborhood,” Rhinehart said.
Rhinehart said the Tumbling Creek fire is classified as a “surface fire,” as it was more or less contained to the ground level, scorching mostly small trees, leaves and sticks. Rhinehart said the fire did not emit as much heat as larger wildfires may and that he observed no instances of tree mortality due to the fire.
“The worst thing is it’s going to hurt wildlife habitat some and it strips the protective layer off the soil temporarily,” he said. “This time next year, it’d be pretty difficult to see where the fire actually burned.”
And because most of the leaves have already fallen from the trees, Rhinehart said there is little chance of leaves falling on the small patches still burning and initiating a “re-burn.”
Hyrne said although the Tumbling Creek fire was quickly contained, crews will continue to monitor the area, and the fire will remain staffed as long as they feel there’s the potential for fire activity.
“When it gets really dry, the issue is the organic matter in the soil,” Rhinehart said as he pointed to the unburnt section of the Tumbling Creek area across the road that served as a fire line. “The fire will burn through that organic matter underneath the surface of the soil, burn underneath the fire or in a dead root, tree root, burn underneath, come out over here three days form now an pop up over there and burn through there and just keep on going. That in itself explains why the crew is coming up here today, they came up yesterday, the came up the day before that, and they’ll probably come up tomorrow. I don’t know how many days they’ll go, but they’re going to keep coming just to make sure everything is contained here until everybody’s satisfied that there won’t be anymore problems.”
And the Forest Service’s work is not done with containment and monitoring. Hyrne said officials will later work to rehabilitate the area damaged by the Tumbling Creek fire, planting grass seeds and installing erosion controls. They will also check to ensure vegetation is taking place and monitor the soil moisture and weather and environmental factors.
“We have to go in and we have to rehabilitate the area where the fire was,” Hyrne said. “So our work is not done when we get the fire put out because of the loss of vegetation, because of the potential for erosion when, and if, we ever get any kind of rain again. We have to go in and we have to start rehab, reestablishing the vegetation in the area and putting in erosion control features in the area so that the area does not wash away whenever we get some good rain in here.”
As for the property owner, he will not face any charges for the Tumbling Creek fire, according to Nathan Waters with the Tennessee Division of Forestry.
“They looked at it and felt it truly was an accidental thing, it wasn’t on purpose,” Waters said.
Rhinehart said the long-term impact of the Tumbling Creek fire to the habitat and environment will be minimal, be he urged caution as the slightest mistake could lead to a large wildfire.
“The impact to the environment and the impact on the trees within the fire lines is minimal here, but it could have also been much worse if personnel had been limited and they didn’t get to this fire as quick as they did,” Rhinehart said.