Washington Post photo of the La Tuna Canyon Fire, September 2, 2017 https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/post-nation/wp/2017/09/02/erratic-wildfire-near-los-angeles-burns-3000-acres-and-forces-hundreds-to-evacuate/?utm_term=.ff65e3d4bca7

As the smoke clears from the Camp Fire, I remember another recent blaze that brought so much unexpected destruction. On November 27, 2016, a small fire started on a mountain top in Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee. The next day, that small fire was fueled by historically dry conditions and fanned by very high winds into a 16,000-acre wildfire that roared through and around Gatlinburg, Tennessee. The fire claimed 14 lives, destroyed more than 2,500 structures (mostly homes) and damaged over $500M of property. The fire was especially destructive in the wildland-urban interface, in the “exurban” neighborhoods that were neither rural nor urban, where homes were built across Gatlinburg’s neighboring foothills. Compare the destruction in the foothills with the comparative survival of the downtown:

Screen capture from ESRI’s “Sevier County Structure Status” https://www.arcgis.com/apps/PublicInformation/index.html?appid=8c18c70f55ac4f81b683454fc7573d76

The southeastern United States never had to worry much about wildfire the way the western states do; the wet climate did the firefighting for us. The U.S. Forest Service’s 2012 analysis of the future of southern United States forest explains how today’s (and tomorrow’s) hotter and drier climate of the southeast will increase the kinds of catastrophic wildfire conditions that led to that terrible day in Gatlinburg in 2016. And yet the region’s population continues to grow quickly, where land-use standards are low and new home construction in hazardous areas is often acceptable.

Gatlinburg’s neighbor Dolly Parton made a generous gift to everyone who lost their homes, but Dolly can’t do this everywhere across America! The people of towns like Gatlinburg can take charge of their own situation: they can plan where new single-family home construction will be the most hazardous, and they can acquire those forests themselves. Locally-owned community forests, managed for forest health and wildfire risk reduction, can also generate revenue from timber sales while creating new outdoor recreation centers for mountain bikers, trail runners, and dog walkers.

The 1,400-acre community forest in Milan, New Hampshire generates enough timber revenue to fund its lone elementary school which teaches 140 kids each year. The tourism from the community forest in Ascutney, Vermont keeps the town open for business. As the breakdown in climate continues, public ownership ensures that no at-risk homes will ever be built on those lands. These small towns will never have to respond to fire emergencies in these beautiful remote locations.