Last year’s wave of wildfires is still fresh in the mind's of many mountain residents. Whether that was a one-time event or the new normal is something environmental groups from Western North Carolina are trying to figure out.
It was a packed house at Highland Brewing Company in Asheville, as well over a hundred residents turned out for the “Before We Burn Again” panel discussion.
The goal of the event was simple: to raise awareness about the threat of future wildfires in the mountains, after last year’s historic drought gave way to dozens of fires which burned more than 150,000 acres of land.
“It’s pretty obvious why we’re having this conversation right now. This last fire season that we’ve been going through, which hasn’t really ended just yet, has been like nothing we’ve seen in a generation,” that’s Josh Kelly of Mountain True. “So, tonight is a response to that.”
The night began with presentations given by a special guest panel, consisting of environmental experts from throughout the region.
Dr. Katie Greenberg, an ecologist with the U.S. Forest Service, gave the audience a brief history lesson on the region’s ecology, illustrating the extent at which the area has already undergone physical change over the centuries by wildfire.
“Before humans, a lot of people want to restore forests to the way they were before humans were on this landscape. That’s a little bit problematic, because before humans were here, this landscape where we’re standing right here, was very, very different.”
Dr. Greenberg explained that ecological impacts can vary depending on when, where and how often wildfires occur. The frequency of naturally-occuring wildfires depend on where they are, and have certain ecological impacts.
For instance, by replicating controlled forest fires, Dr. Greenberg has determined low intensity fires—that is to say, fires caught and suppressed early enough—allow for greater and quicker reforestation, while promoting vitality below the forest canopy. And unlike high intensity wildfires, the populations of local reptilian species are hardly effected.
“Probably because when trees die, it opens up the canopy, and lizards like kind of warmer and drier environments.”
Dr. Steve Norman explored the conditions such fires thrive in to begin with.
"Drought is a recurring phenomenon here. We need to be ready for it.”
Citing data collected over the last forty years from the Nantahala and Pisgah national forests, along with data from federal lands in surrounding states, Dr. Norman highlighted eerily similar drought conditions from previous decades in the region.
“Most of our fires are burning during drought.”
Previous wildfires in the region were as intense as last year’s, he noted, however he pointed out that last year’s spread across far more area in a shorter amount of time, due to the prolonged period of drought.
“Are we ready for a 21 year drought?”
After confronting the public with the potential for prolonged drought, the panel then examined wildfire management with Adam Warwick, fire and stewardship manager with the Nature Conservancy’s Southern Blue Ridge Program.
He explained firefighting was borne out of the need to protect industrial timber in the early twentieth century. Since then, fire management has grown to encompass land conservation and the protection of property and taxpayers.
“That’s when people started questioning whether fire suppression was the right thing to do. We know it’s the right thing to do as far as protecting people and saving lives. But there’s an ecological consequence to that.”
According to Warwick, society has gotten so good at firefighting over the decades that many forests now have a build-up of fuels for wildfire, and at the same time their biodiversity has been cut down.
“Now you have humps in all that forest, in all that thick stuff. And so what do you do with that? You have a Gatlinburg situation. It turns into a disaster. Fire’s natural, and it’s really only a disaster in terms of how it effects people. It’s a little hard to wrap your head around.”
He cautioned that fires spread uphill, often with the help of wind, and are ultimately scattered and trapped beneath the thick mountain canopy.
With more people moving out into Western North Carolina, the panel recommended community developers adopt wildfire planning regulations, as some 52 percent of homes in the region can be found among its many thick forests. The panel also recommended residents create a barrier of no less than 30 feet between their homes and nearby forest.