After the Fire, the Smoky Mountains Surge Back

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

The following is a guest blog from Gatlinburg Falls Resort:

Spring 2017 brought good news for anyone worried about Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The park experienced headline-grabbing wildfires in December 2016, leaving many who love the park worried about its condition. We’re happy to report that both GSMNP and the city of Gatlinburg have recovered nicely.

The forest floor is recovering rapidly with new green shoots in the scattered burn areas, and Gatlinburg is in full swing as a bustling attraction filled with fun, music, people and excitement.

As spring came to the Smokies in 2017, we saw the whole area become green. Soon we learned that, of the 800 miles of hiking trails in the national park, only 4 trails would remain closed for upgrade work, while all the rest were already reopening. Park rangers worked hard through the winter to restore the greatest accessibility for the greatest number. And visits to the park, by the end of April, had actually edged up slightly over last year, which was itself a record-breaking year.

Throughout the winter it was clear also that food supplies for wildlife were unaffected, and habitat damage was minimal. The animals experienced the same terrifying kind of trauma and sometimes individual loss as the humans in the area, but for the most part they survived. And in spring we've seen great activity in the national park. 2017 is a good year to catch sight of new bear cubs with Mama Bear, deer and their fawns, coyotes and even the elusive, fast-moving bobcats.

It's a strange thing to say, after the loss and heartbreak of the winter fires, but springtime in the Smoky Mountains this year reminded us that Nature can put a forest fire to very good use for regeneration and renewal. The fires probably killed a lot of parasites and already-weakened plant systems, including the dead hemlock trees that were such a sorrowful sight. What's happening now is the intense regrowth that follows a fire.

The Understory

The fires were always about the forest floor. We lost some canopy trees, but much of the burn involved dead leaf and undergrowth. Some bark was singed but roots were largely untouched, and most trees escaped intact, leaving the national park with its numerous forests and more than 100 species of trees.

During March and April we saw an amazing bloom of wildflowers, and the forest floor - the understory - came alive with regeneration. The tireless volunteers of Great Smoky Mountains Association (GSMA) recorded video clips and photographs of some of these quiet events happening low to the ground.

This YouTube video clip from March shows the regrowth beginning with Table Mountain Pines, a fire-adapted species whose seeds are helped to propagate through fire: Table Mountain Pine Stand.

And here in a Facebook video clip are the parasite-devastated hemlock trees that looked so bare and were such an anxiety for lovers of the forests. They were taken by fire, almost perhaps as nature's way to reduce their presence? It's an interesting thought: The Fire and the Hemlock.

Down at the soil level, fungus proliferates. Fungus seems to heal all soils, and in the burn areas fungal colonization is coming on strong. Here are some pictures of mycorrhizae, perhaps the most beneficial fungi throughout the world, the hidden helpers that coexist with plants and trees - often the first to appear after wildfires, beginning the process of renewal: These Are the Mycorrhizae.

1. Mycorrhizae - Image courtesy of GSMA

And in this latest “Smoky Mountain Minute” video from GSMA, University of Tennessee professor Karen Hughes describes a variety of fungi that are abundant this spring: Wildfire Mushrooms.

Telling the Story

It was always hard to get the word out that Gatlinburg and the surrounding areas were only sporadically hit by the fires. We're accustomed to watching wildfires on TV that cover thousands of acres in one huge swath of fire, marching on against firefighting efforts, and leaving a vast, monolithic area of devastation in its wake. But this fire was very different.

The fire started on the ironically and aptly named Chimney Tops, a high outcrop hard for firefighters to get to. Then the winds came, with storm-force velocities that picked up embers and threw them across many miles, so that new hot spots sprang up with no warning, often surrounding firefighters who were then hard-pressed to flee for their lives. And 14 people didn't make it out alive of the dizzying cauldron of fires. The speed and surprise of the countless new small fires are what made this fire event so terrifying. But also, by contrast, this sporadic and random effect left immense areas - and all the major attractions of the area - completely untouched by fire.

If the extreme winds carried the sparks very far, they also seemed to carry bad news across the country instantly, long before the more sober reality could catch up. In the first hours we heard that Ober Gatlinburg, the ski area on Mt. Harrison above Gatlinburg, was completely destroyed. But when the smoke cleared, the resort was untouched, although as with many local businesses, some employees had lost their homes in the area.

Some 2,400 structures were burned by the fires, many of them cabins in the forests, but still only a fraction of the built infrastructure of the area. And as local organizations such as Cabins of the Smoky Mountains tried to tell in releases and updates, less than 5% of the land area was touched - some 17,000 acres in the entire region, while Great Smoky Mountains National Park alone holds half a million acres. Even in the first days, it was possible to drive all around the area without running into evidence of fires. And so it is now, even more so in this green summer in the Smoky Mountains.

2. Gatlinburg Sky Lift, May 2017 - Image courtesy of

As for the people of the area, they call themselves mountain tough, on terms with Nature and its events. On Friday, May 26, 2017, a landmark event took place, as the Gatlinburg Sky Lift reopened, in time for Memorial Day weekend. A great favorite for countless thousands of visitors over many decades, the Sky Lift offered one of the best views of Gatlinburg and the layered ridges of the Smoky Mountains all around. It was a fun way to lift up out of the bustle of the main drag and experience the true vastness of the area - a breath of air and a sense of place. The Sky Lift was one of the few attractions in Gatlinburg to be touched by the fires, and the owners decided to rebuild it completely.

And in this way, life goes on, while the soil renews and the towns are alive and eager for guests to return. Great Smoky Mountains National Park is fully open for "business" (it's the only national park in the country with free admission). And it's a good year, here in 2017, to visit the Smoky Mountains, and the magical towns of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge.


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