When Henri D. Grissino-Mayer, a professor of geography at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, heard about the forest fires threatening Gatlinburg, he was not surprised.
For years, Grissino-Mayer has been giving talks throughout Tennessee and the Southeast on the subject "Will Our Great Smoky Mountains One Day Go Up in Flames?" In the talk, he highlights how Gatlinburg is the epitome of a fire hazard because the mountain village is located at what is called the "wildland-urban interface."
"Why? Because we love mountains, we love mountain homes, we love forests, we love to get out in the outdoors," he said. "But, in doing so, we then have to prevent nature from doing what nature does, and that is burn our forests. Such burns are beneficial, and in fact our Southeastern forests require fire for maintenance of ecosystem functions and regeneration of many fire-adapted species. That's right, we have plant species that actually require fire."
Grissino-Mayer published an article this year about fire as a once-dominant disturbance in Appalachian forests.
That article says studies of the southern and central Appalachian Mountains show that widespread fires burned about once every seven years from the mid-1700s until the early- to mid-1900s when a policy of widespread fire suppression was introduced and human-ignited fires were greatly reduced.
"This recent absence of fire has contributed to major changes in tree establishment rates, structural changes in forest stands and changes in species composition," Grissino-Mayer wrote. "Major pulses of establishment in the first half of the 20th century feature tree species that are shade tolerant and fire intolerant, replacing species adapted to repeated fires."
Grissino-Mayer said the subject is one he discusses with students in his classes.
"What is happening in Gatlinburg was a safe prediction," he said. "It was bound to happen. I tell people and especially my students in my Natural Hazards class (Geography 331) that it's not a matter of 'if' fire returns to the forests of the Smokies, but 'when.'"
As news of the devastating fire spread, former students reached out to Grissino-Mayer with recollections of class discussions about just such an event.
"I was a student in your Natural Hazards class last spring … I remembered you predicting Gatlinburg burning due to the combination of many factors including the weather conditions, lack of fires and growing human population and tourism producing an accumulation of natural fuel on the ground," one student wrote.
The student said he's used what he learned in Grissino-Mayer's class to talk to family and friends about why the Smoky Mountain fires have continued to burn despite firefighters' best efforts to douse them. He's also been able to explain to others that fire is a natural, even important, force in the environment.
The student concluded: "The fire sucks, but thank you for enabling many of your students to be able to currently walk around well informed of the facts and dangers."