Between Nov. 6 and Dec. 20, the Smoky Mountain National Park plans to burn approximately 660 acres of fields in Cades Cove.
The park managers, according to a release by the National Park Service, will have burned an area in the Western part of the cove that they’ve burned for over the last 20 years to help preserve native floral species in the area.
Prescribed fire, also known as controlled burns, is fire that is intentionally set in an area in a controlled manner to help burn away fuels and create a break in the path of a potential wildfire. Prescribed fires are used across the United States in forests in California, in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the Everglades National Park in Florida.
While there are some misconceptions that all fire is bad fire, firefighter Kevin Nunn of the Pigeon Forge Fire Department explained that prescribed fire is a good way to reduce the number of fuels in an area and help with the ecological balance.
“If you prescribe a fire to an area, then you are reducing the fuels and you’re able to control that environment,” Nunn said. “You’re reducing the dead and downed material. It burns off the young growth and the invasive species. It burns off that area and allows new growth to come in over time.”
Forest Management Officer for the Great Smoky Mountains National Park Greg Salansky explained that prescribed fires are the only method to remove fuels within the Smokies.
“Ecologically the only way we can do any kind of disturbance in the National Park is with fire,” Salansky said. “We’re not the U.S. Forest Service, so we don’t have the ability to go in and actually cut trees or do any type of logging operations.”
Salansky and Nunn both explained that the process behind prescribed fire is very cautious with lots of planning before the fire is even set.
First, the area that needs to be burned is defined and a walk through follows so as to monitor what needs to be burned and what fuels are in the area. At the same time, the weather is monitored for the perfect conditions. If the weather is too try before the prescription burn, if there will be strong winds or very dry air or not enough humidity, then the burn can’t happen.
“There has to be a window of opportunity,” Nunn said. “So if the fuel is in the right place, the weather is in the right place and you have a group of personnel of a group of 15 or 20 guys that’ll be there to monitor it. You have all these elements that you have to adhere to, and if all those come into line, then you can put fire on the ground.”
Salensky said that for the most part, prescription burning is limited to either the late fall or early spring. During those times, wildlife is less affected as there are less insects in the area, and other animals have moved into hibernation.
While prescribed burns are closely monitored and rarely get out of hand, public perception of fire and smoke management makes it difficult for park rangers and firefighters to use prescribed fire without being scrutinized.
For those very reasons, prescribed fire is not used near Pigeon Forge. However, Nunn said that all firefighters are trained in prescribed fire, and the Pigeon Forge Fire Department helps in certain areas.
Not only are firefighters trained on how to use fire, but students at UT are also learning about prescribed fire and receiving field experience through the Department of Forestry, Wildlife and Fisheries.
Jennifer Franklin, a professor in forestry, wildlife and fisheries, said that students taking either the wildlife or forestry programs spend two weeks learning about prescribed burns so that when they become forestry or wildlife managers, they aren’t afraid to use it to help the forests.
“They’re going to be the managers of these areas, and if they don’t understand fire, then they’re often really hesitant to use it,” Franklin said. “So having people who are moving into those positions have a good understanding of fire and the ability to use it safely, to know that it can be used safely, I think that is the key to getting fire on the ground in those areas.”
Students learn about fire behavior and how to come up with objectives, so they know exactly what the goal is with prescribed fire and how to create back-up plans so that the burn won’t escape.
While students have the opportunity to learn about fire at UT, Salensky said that educating the public about the benefits of prescribed fire is something that still needs to be worked on.
“The key thing to get out there is that there are a lot of agencies that are doing prescribed fire. There are a lot of science that’s involved. Lot of different folks looking at prescribed fire and the benefits of it,” Salensky said. “It’s a good thing. Again, I said it earlier, there’s good fire and bad fire, and prescribed fire is that good fire category.”
“You have to understand, that fire is fire and the way the area is here, the vegetation grows back and so it’s a never ending cycle of how that vegetation comes together,” Salensky said. “So lots of aspects of work that always needs to be done to keep that in check.”