A scorched vehicle sits next to a burned out building in Gatlinburg, Tenn., on Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2016. The fatal fires swept over the tourist town the night before, causing widespread damage. CREDIT: AP Photo/Erik Schelzig
The blaze is historic for the region.
At least seven people have died, and several others are still missing, after wildfire spread through southeastern Tennessee this week. More than 14,000 people have been evacuated, and at least 700 buildings have burned. The country’s most-visited national park, Great Smoky Mountains, has also been closed.
The blaze, centered around Gatlinburg, is the latest in a series of wildfires that have stricken the southeast this fall. Unusually dry weather — drought conditions — have left the southeast particularly vulnerable, although climatologists say the region can expect this trend to continue.
Even though Tennessee’s official fire season lasts until December 15, another two weeks from now, local officials have already acknowledged that this fire is out of the ordinary.
“This is a fire for the history books. The likes of this has never been seen here,” Gatlinburg Fire Chief Greg Miller told reporters.
The Tennessee fire was 10 percent contained on Wednesday, when rainfall in the area gave firefighters a boost in their efforts. Still, officials warned that the threat is not over.
“We had really good rain, but not enough to make up the deficit. Don’t let this rain give you a false sense of security.” Michael Proud, incident meteorologist, said in a report Thursday.
CREDIT: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
Drought, which has plagued the southeast for much of this year, is a key factor in how easily fires start and how quickly they spread. And, as with so many extreme weather events, Tennessee’s drought is tied to climate change.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, southern Appalachia, where many of the fires are occurring, is expected to get drier with climate change and increased population. Not only is rainfall decreasing, summer temperatures are going up, causing greater evaporation and leaving woodlands at risk.
“Since 1970, average annual temperatures in the region have increased by about 2°F, with the greatest warming occurring during the summer,” the agency says.
It’s no coincidence that there are currently 14 large fires burning in southern Appalachia.
The Southeast has a cluster of ongoing wildfires, according to the Forest Service. Large incidents are wildfires covering at least 100 acres in wooded areas or at least 300 acres in grasslands. CREDIT: USDA Forest Service
Despite this strong connection, though, many news outlets, including the Washington Post, NBC News, and others, have failed to make the connection between climate change and fire risk in their stories.
Making the explicit connection between news incidents — even catastrophes — and climate change is one of the most important ways the public can be informed of how climate change is impacting their lives, today.
“The question is, is this a new normal?” North Carolina forest researcher James Vose told InsideClimate News.
“The one thing that the models do seem to converge on is that dry periods will become drier and last longer, and wet periods become wetter and more extreme,” he said. That’s why not only has North Carolina seen increased wildfires this year, it has also seen flooding.