Backcountry Science: Let’s Talk About Wildfires

If you live anywhere in the Cumberlands, it’s probably not shocking to hear that wildfires have become a serious issue over the past few days. A staggering number of fires – from small fires to large blazes – are currently burning across the region, particularly eastern Kentucky and adjacent portions of far southwest Virginia. News crews have been out covering the fires, helicopters are shuttling water from nearby reservoirs to ongoing blazes, and smoke has blanketed numerous local communities.

Unless you’re tuned into fire management efforts, it might seem strange to have so many wildfires burning at once. In fact, questions like “Why are there so many fires right now?” and “But we don’t get wildfires in this part of the country. That’s for out West, right?” are peppering social media and news outlets as local communities grapple with nearby blazes. As with any real-time situation like this, it can be hard to separate fact from fiction and panic, so we thought we’d devote this edition of our Backcountry Science series to wildfires in Appalachia. We’ll hit some of the high points below:

1.) Aren’t wildfires not supposed to be a thing in Appalachia? We get so much rain here that it prevents them, right? Yes and no. There’s actually a bit of controversy in the scientific community about the historical role of fire in Appalachia – that is, how “normal” periodic, natural fires are here in the mountains. Some evidence suggests that many habitat types are adapted to periodic burning, while other evidence suggests the opposite in other places and habitats across the mountains. Forest managers can sometimes be divided over how to manage local forests for fire as a result, but we do know one thing for certain: naturally-occurring fires can and do happen here in the mountains. They aren’t all that frequent and are typically small – often on the order of a few acres or less – but lightning can occasionally ignite fires in dry conditions or strike a standing tree, smolder inside it while surrounding leaf litter and other fuels dry after rain, and ignite later on when conditions are favorable for a fire to spread. Check out this website from the Great Smoky Mountains National Park on how fire is managed in the park’s backcountry.

2.) So what about bigger wildfires? How do they happen? One word: humans. Most of the large, impactful wildfires our region sees are the result of human behaviors rather than more natural phenomena. Maybe someone is burning leaves in dry weather and the fire gets out of control. Perhaps someone was using machinery that let off sparks or overheated and started a fire. All it takes is an ignition source, and from there all a wildfire needs is access to fuel and the right conditions to quickly become a problem. In still other cases, some wildfires are intentionally set by other people – an act of arson which is of course illegal and can land you a ton of time in jail.

3.) Why are there so many wildfires right now? In Virginia, there are actually two fire seasons: one in the spring and a second in the fall months. We’re in the middle of the fall fire season right now, meaning that conditions in most years are ripe during these months for wildfires to ignite. There’s hardly a year that goes by where we don’t have at least a few wildfires burning during these seasons as a result. This year, though, we have an extra factor working in favor of wildfires in that we are exceptionally dry, with most places in a formal drought. This means that fuels – leaf litter, downed logs and sticks, standing dead trees, and the like – are much drier than normal and ignite much more easily. And once a fire is going, drier conditions mean that it becomes easier for a fire to spread. The multiple fires burning across the Cumberlands right now are therefore partly a consequence of bad luck, poor choices by people, and the typical conditions we see each autumn.

4.) So if wildfires are common here in the fall, why am I just now hearing about them? One reason these fires are getting so much attention is that there are a lot of them this year (see why above) and since the smoke from these fires is getting blown over some populated areas. You don’t notice smaller fires that keep their smoke mostly over a national forest, for example, and never realize that they’re happening as a result. The other answer, though, is social media. We’re now in an age where local news spreads like….well, wildfire…meaning that you’re hearing about these events from friends where they got little attention in the past, with usually little more than a passing mention on the evening news.

5.) It seems like things with these fires are really bad. Should I worry? No – not unless a wildfire is burning nearby. And by “burning nearby” we mean that the actual fire is in close proximity to your home, not that you can simply see or smell smoke. Smoke from wildfires can spread for many miles if the fire is large enough and weather conditions are right for the smoke to spread (as they have been over the last few days in parts of Kentucky and Virginia), meaning that you may see or smell even thick smoke but have an actual fire nowhere nearby. While wildfires in our part of the country can rarely threaten structures, the emphasis there is on “rarely,” thanks to the fact that our regional fire managers work diligently to locate and control wildfires once they start and since fires in our area are relatively slow-moving. You’re simply not going to see a massive “firestorm” of the type seen out West occur in our region, period.

6.) What can I do to help? The simplest way to help out in fire season is to obey local regulations regarding burning. If your area is under a burn ban, follow it. (Check your local emergency management agency or media outlets to find out if a ban is in effect.) This means no campfires, fires to burn spare leaves, or any open flame of any type – no matter how in control of the fire you think you’ll be. If you’re not under an outright burn ban, check to see if your area has special regulations about when you can burn or if you need to obtain a burn permit first. And if you’re hiking, be aware of trail closures and obey them (portions of the Appalachian Trail and Pine Mountain Trail, for example, have been closed this week). If you show up to hike and find a trail closed, turn around and head elsewhere rather than becoming a thorn in the backside of emergency responders and putting yourself at risk. You will not be able to handle a wildfire in the backcountry unprepared.

7.) Where can I go to learn more? The Virginia Department of Forestry has about all you’d ever want to know on wildfires and wildfire prevention on its website. Check it out and follow their links to learn more about wildfires in the state and what is done to prevent and control them.


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