By: Rick Brown, Tennessee Department of Forestry and Holly Campbell, Southern Regional Extension Forestry.
This article previously appeared in the Wildland Fire in the Southeast newsletter.
Appalachian RC&D Council administers Firewise USA® grants provided through the Tennessee Division of Forestry.
Located near the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in the southern Appalachian Mountains, Gatlinburg, Tennessee is a popular tourist destination. During the fall of 2016, the Southern Appalachian Mountains Region of east Tennessee was experiencing an extreme and prolonged drought. As a result of the dry conditions, several significant wildfires were burning throughout many areas of this region. When an arson fire was ignited on Chimney Tops Mountain in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (located about eight miles south of Gatlinburg) around Thanksgiving, few could have predicted the devastating effects the fire would have.
On November 28, 2016, very dry conditions coupled with high winds (over 80 mph) led to firestorm-like conditions in and around Gatlinburg, making it difficult for people to evacuate in a timely manner. Lines of communication failed when trees fell across power, telephone, and cable lines, and disabled cellular and radio towers and equipment.
High winds knocked down trees, blocking many of the narrow, winding roads (as well as some main roads), making many mountain roads inaccessible and causing evacuation problems throughout Gatlinburg and neighboring areas. In all, over 14,000 people were forced to evacuate Gatlinburg and neighboring areas on November 28th.
The fire moved through the Gatlinburg area and on into other areas of Sevier County in a matter of hours. Tragically, the Chimney Tops II Fire, as well as other fires ignited by power lines knocked down by the high winds, resulted in the loss of 14 lives, 176 people injured, 2460 structures damaged or destroyed, 17,140 acres burned, and approximately $1 billion in damages.
To reduce the likeliness of this tragedy occurring again, the City of Gatlinburg is working to improve its emergency management communications and procedures, and has become a recognized Firewise USA® site. In addition, other communities within the City of Gatlinburg have also completed, or are in the process of developing, Community Wildfire Protection Plans and are also seeking Firewise USA® recognition status. The Firewise USA® program is designed to work with communities to help home and property owners reduce their fire risk and become more resilient toward the threat of wildfire. The community of Chalet Village, which is located within the city limits of Gatlinburg, experienced numerous home losses during the 2016 fires. The neighborhood has also obtained recognition as a Firewise USA® site and has begun an aggressive program to adopt Firewise USA® recommendations. One Chalet Village homeowner who lost their home in the fire took the rebuilding process one step further by reconstructing their home with much a much higher level of fire- resistant materials and methods. Even though the homeowners rebuilt in the same location, in heavily forested and steep mountainous terrain, they incorporated significant improvements in the design of the home to improve the fire resiliency of their home.
To reduce fire risk, the entire pedestal type foundation was constructed of concrete. The siding on the home is also made of a concrete, which is one 1 ¼ – 1 ½ inches thick. The patented siding product- made by Old Kentucky Logs in Corbin, Kentucky- is similar to hardy board but resembles the look and feel of antique hand-hewed logs, and is much thicker than hardy board and similar products. This concrete siding is known for its fire-resistance and strength of attachment. In addition, the expansive deck on the residence was constructed with steel supports instead of wood, and the home was constructed with a metal roof. The house sits on a steep slope which contains a heavy fuel loading of dead and regenerating vegetation. For this reason, the homeowner plans to further reduce fire risk by reducing vegetation around the home; and, because of its steep inaccessible grades below the house, is considering the use of goats to help reduce hazardous fuels that may be a threat in the future.
Even though the concrete siding used on the home costs approximately 20% more than other types of siding, it’s potential to significantly decrease future fire risk is critical to making this home more fire-resistant. The builder who constructed this home is interested in helping to promote fire-resilient building standards in the area by using this project as an example of what can be done to make homes more fire-resistant, and safer for the residents and the community.
This project supports the national Cohesive Fire Strategy goal of Promoting Fire Adapted Communities (by incorporating fire-resistant construction materials). This project also supports the Cohesive Fire Strategy’s Southeast Regional Action Plan through:
- Promoting establishment of insurance incentives, building and landscape ordinances, and ignition resistant construction techniques through communication and collective action with planners and insurers, emphasizing Firewise and other similar concepts when planning communities and building homes to reduce wildfire impacts (2.1.3) and
- Increasing awareness of community and homeowner responsibility for fire preparedness and prevention. (2.1.4)
Partners: Smoky Top Construction, Old Kentucky Logs Company, Tennessee Department of Forestry
Additional resources: http://www.oldkentuckylogs.com/about-us/
Contact: Rick Brown, Wildfire Mitigation Specialist, Tennessee Department of Forestry, firstname.lastname@example.org