Southern Appalachian Drought and Fires Expose Future Risks

Princess Tree germinating after the 2016 Boteler Fire.Prior to 2016, extreme fall fire seasons were relatively uncommon across the Southern Appalachians. Most of the understanding of fire risks and effects was based on experiences with wildfires and prescribed fires that burned from late winter through spring. In 2016, record fall heat, drought, and multiple ignitions brought surprising fire behavior and extent—smoke set in for weeks, homes were lost, and people died. On federal lands, more area burned over six weeks than had burned during all other fall seasons since 1970 combined. With this extreme season now in the past, Eastern Threat Center researchers and partners are reappraising assumptions of risk to be better prepared for “the next time.” This project takes an all-lands, landscape-scale approach while providing detailed information about each individual fire in a way that will support monitoring and local decisions. It leverages new high-resolution (10-meter) satellite imagery that captures fire effects to the canopy and understory, which can and will improve researchers’ understanding of fire effects, fuel treatment effectiveness, and recovery. Through integration with new maps of forest activities, vegetation, and parcel ownership, researchers are gaining insights into exactly who and what are at risk, and why. That information will be useful for designing hazard mitigation and prevention strategies.

Pictured: Invasive species such as Princess Tree (Paulownia tomentosa) germinated after the 2016 Boteler Fire. More detailed maps of fire’s local impacts help managers target areas of highest concern more efficiently. Photo by Steve Norman, U.S. Forest Service.

Forest Service Partners/Collaborators:
National Forests of North Carolina and Southern Research Station Center for Forest Disturbance Science

External Partners/Collaborators: Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Contact: Steve Norman, research ecologist,

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