Experts say Historic Gatlinburg Wildfires Related to Climate ChangeExperts say Historic Wildfires Related to Climate Change

Thousands of residents and business owners are returning to their properties, or what's left of them, today, after historic wildfires swept through Gatlinburg on Monday night. While they confront the losses and cleanup ahead, there's talk about what advanced the fires so quickly and what could be done to prevent them.

Josh Kelly, a public lands biologist with the conservation group Mountain True, said the number of homes built into the mountainsides around the tourist town and lack of prescribed fires added to the scope of the disaster.

"The development pattern around Gatlinburg set the stage for this disaster, and a lot of people that lost their homes probably had no idea that the homes they owned were in dangerous locations, but they truly were," he stated.

Paying attention to where development is allowed and reducing the amount of combustible materials are among the strategies to adapt to climate change. As temperatures rise and rainfall amounts decrease, Kelly and others say more steps must be taken to work with the changing environment.

Stephen Smith, executive director of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy said these disasters are reminders that Tennessee's geography doesn't offer much protection from the effects of climate change.

"We sort of think that, 'Well OK, we're not on the coast, we're not going to deal with sea-level rise; we're not out West and see the forest fires,' and you know, we think we're relatively safe in relationship," he said. "But I know over the past few months, my child has not been able to go out and play because of air quality alerts."

Kelly blames record-breaking dry conditions that created the perfect storm for what occurred Monday night.

"So, along with that lack of rain, we've had a lot of sun and heat to dry out all the leaf litter and wood and fuels on the ground," Kelly added. "It's led to conditions where any sort of spark or ember can lead to a big wildfire."

In addition to short-term adaptation, he said reducing fossil fuel use, which adds to global warming, is a long-term way to mitigate climate change.