Posts

Landslide Concerns in Fire-Ravaged Gatlinburg TN

While the community of Gatlinburg, Tennessee grieves their losses and starts planning how to recover and rebuild, a new threat confronts the area. An inch and a half of winter rain helped put out the horrific fire over the weekend, but as we’ve covered in the past, wildfire-scorched areas often have an increased risk of landslides and mudslides. Local fire crews have thus far reported several small landslides that are slowing their ability to access damaged areas.

wildfire landslides

Before and After Image of a Burn Scar from the Chimney Tops 2 Fire

How a Fire Can Increase Landslide Risk?

Depending on soil type and topography, vegetation and land cover have a significant impact on the stability of the soil. Under normal conditions, leaf litter and other surface vegetation slow the rainfall water moving down a given slope.  This allows much of that moisture to permeate through the soil and drain into the water table or aquifer below, leaving the surface soil relatively stable.  Even during heavy rainfall when surface soil becomes saturated, root systems from brush and trees help to keep the soil from moving downhill.

However, when vegetation is lost due to wildfire (or other reasons such as construction), the factors that keep soil in place are minimized, and there is greater risk that the soil’s surface tension in a given area is overcome by gravity and washes down the slope.

Gatlinburg is in the Great Smoky Mountains, a very old mountain range within the Appalachian Mountain region. Due to the age of the mountains and the region’s climate, the mountains themselves are very weathered, and have much deeper soils than the mountains in the Western United States. The region is also heavily wooded, so the roots of the dense vegetation help to stabilize the nearby soil. When the wildfires recently moved through the area, the vegetation and leaf litter was burned out, and the stabilizing root systems were compromised. Storms then came and assisted in firefighting efforts, but the lack of vegetation due to the recent burns caused a few small slides. Before winter brings snow to the normally wet area, an increased likelihood for flooding, mudslides, and landslides remains a worrying possibility. As of December 7th, there is little rain forecasted in the region for several days.

Visit ready.gov to learn about how to better protect yourself, your family, and your property from landslides and other hazards.

Gatlinburg Disaster: 700 Structures Lost, 13 Fatalities

Chimney Tops 2 Fire Update

Tough questions were abundant at this morning’s press conference as word fell that a thirteenth victim has been identified in the aftermath of this week’s Chimney Tops 2 fire. Fire and Emergency managers tried to dodge the press’s questions regarding whether they waited too long to evacuate residents in the Gatlinburg and surrounding areas, and whether lives were lost because of it. The truth of the situation is this fire was an anomaly. It was a first of its kind for its fire regime.

The fire creeped around in rocky areas of the steep mountains, south of Gatlinburg, for a few days and warranted fire crews to manage it with an aerial attack. An extreme wind event fanned the fire, knocked down power lines, and created ember starts and abundant spot fires equaling utter chaos. Unfortunately, it appears that with power outages and cell service down, emergency notifications were not received by all residents with disastrous implications. Door to door evacuations by the local authorities couldn’t cover the vast areas in impending danger. The rapidly spread ignited leaf litter and ground fuels from wind gusts reported as high as 87 mph, fueled by prolonged drought, (not surprisingly) from house to house.

The Southern Area Red Team in charge of the damage assessment has updated the Incident Page stating, “There have been a number of confirmed fatalities (13 reported as of this morning) and over 700 confirmed structures lost. This fire hit the communities of Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge, and surrounding areas adjacent to Great Smoky Mountains National Park hard as they were preparing for both Christmas and the final few weeks of a bustling tourist season.” It was truly a disaster never before seen by this part of the country and only rarely seen nationwide.

Map of the Chimney Tops 2 Fire and surrounding spot fires in Sevier County, TN


Chimney Tops 2 Fire Outlook

Southern Area Red Team type-1 incident management team has command of the fire and has been focused on public safety, infrastructure, and assessing damages. The fire has not spread since early in the week after the incident area received precipitation with frontal passage Wednesday. Minimal fire behavior and smoldering is expected for the three day fire forecast.  Weather-wise, a ridge of high pressure will produce dry conditions in the fire area through Saturday before wetting rains are forecast to return late in the weekend.

14,000 people remain displaced by the fires, with almost 4000 residents still without power. Some business owners and evacuees have been escorted back into some areas but most remain under mandatory evacuation for now. Three Red Cross Shelters remain active in the area with 219 people still utilizing them. Red Cross has delivered over 10,000 meals this week in Sevier County according to their website. We’re happy to report that the organization has also received hundreds of thousands in relief donations.


Chimney Tops 2 Fire Facts
  • As of: December 2nd, 2016
  • Location: Sevier County, TN
  • Size: 17,859
  • Containment: 0%
  • Fire Behavior: Minimal fire spread and smoldering.
  • Structures Impacted: 1000 (Estimated)
  • Structures Destroyed: 700 (confirmed but expected to rise)
  • Evacuations: Are in place, 14,000 residents and visitors impacted
  • Fatalities: 13
  • Incident Page: http://inciweb.nwcg.gov/incident/5112/