Robert Beanblossom: fund forestry, fire departments before Gatlinburg happens here

Robert Beanblossom: fund forestry, fire departments before Gatlinburg happens here

01 January 2017

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USA — Gatlinburg, Tennessee, has been in the news in recent days as the scene of one of the most devastating wildfires ever to occur in the eastern United States.

The Chimney Tops II fire, the result of extreme drought conditions prevailing across the region and the passage of a cold front that brought hurricane-force winds on Nov. 28, burned 17,000 acres, destroyed or damaged more than 2,400 homes or businesses and killed at least 14 individuals.

The total property damage is in excess of $500 million, not counting fire suppression costs of $7.6 millions. About 14,000 individuals were evacuated.

The important thing to remember is that this firestorm occurred in exactly the same fuel model (hardwood leaf litter) that dominates the vast majority of West Virginia’s forests. Under a similar scenario, it is quite possible that a wildfire of this magnitude in terms of lives lost and property destroyed could happen in many parts of West Virginia. Larger wildfires have occurred here in the past, but property damage and loss of life were not as great as in Tennessee.

Gatlinburg is not an isolated event in the Eastern U.S. either. The problem of wildfire control along the fringe of wild and urban lands was first dramatized in October 1947, when fires burned about 220,000 acres in southern Maine. In four days, these fires destroyed more than 200 structures, including a cancer research center at Bar Harbor, and 16 lives were lost.

The fires were the result of drought conditions lasting into late October under a stagnate high pressure cell: 108 days passed without rain. Oct. 20 saw 50 fires starting, but all were small and easily contained. But the next day, strong winds caused several of them to jump control lines. High winds continued for the next four days, with those on Oct. 23 reaching hurricane velocity. Fires burned across 7 1/2 miles in a mere 25 minutes. Fleeing residents were rescued by Coast Guard, Navy and private boats in a move reminiscent of the evacuation of British troops at Dunkirk along the coast of France during World War II.

Three years later, West Virginia suffered a very similar situation. An event, forever known in the annals of fire control history in the Mountain State as “Black Monday,” occurred on March 27, 1950. What started as a gentle, spring morning erupted into a fiery holocaust by noon. The entire state was slammed with high winds. Downed power lines caused numerous fires. Kanawha Airport (now Yeager) reported winds above 60 mph; Parkersburg, 70 mph; and at Sprigg in Mingo County, winds were clocked in excess of 100 mph. Fortunately, rains came near the end of the day but not before 191 fires burned 20,122 acres. Had rain not occurred, it is quite likely West Virginia would have experienced considerable loss of life and property then.

The fall of 1952 was dry throughout the East, and the state suffered its worst fire season ever recorded. Over 600,000 acres burned, mostly in the southern portion of the state, and fire claimed one life in Grant County. Heavy smoke blanketed the region, and airports in Huntington and Charleston closed.

Prolonged drought again prevailed throughout the East from 1961-65. Three fires on Long Island, New York — one in 1962 and two in 1963 — burned 7,000 acres and consumed 200 structures. In the spring of 1963, conditions were particularly severe. Massachusetts reported 4,861 fires in one month. West Virginia suffered the worst spring season ever recorded up to that time — 1,547 fires burning 68,048 acres.

But it was in New Jersey that the real firestorm broke loose. On Saturday, May 20, a series of fires began an 11-day rampage over more than 200,000 acres. Some 458 structures were destroyed, seven lives were lost and more than a thousand people were left homeless.

What was really interesting in the New Jersey situation was the fact that many of the fires spread in lightly fueled forests. Foresters had conducted prescribed burns over much of the area just two years prior to the outbreak, and there was relatively little fuel on the ground. Yet just a very light covering of pine needles and oak leaves was all that was required for the fires to spread rapidly.

Drought cycles continued as years passed. One of the worst in West Virginia was the fall of 1987, when property damage did run into the millions of dollars, a fact often overlooked. CSX was hard hit. The loss of the Sproul Tunnel in Boone County also resulted in the loss of revenue for many days afterward when coal traffic was halted as a result.

Another bad year was 1991 — almost as many acres were lost as in 1952. In the dry period of 1999 to 2001, more acres burned, and one life was claimed in Mingo County — a young woman was driving home from work when a burning snag fell, striking her and her vehicle. Loss of homes, barns and other structures occur frequently. This list could go on indefinitely.

West Virginia has not experienced severe drought conditions in 15 years, but it will occur, especially now that climate change is disrupting traditional weather patterns. The state is not prepared to handle fires starting under normal conditions, much less extremely dry ones.

This is particularly true in the light of events last summer, when the Division of Forestry was forced to lay off a third of its foresters. Gov. Tomblin, Secretary of Commerce Keith Burdette, members of the Republican-controlled Legislature and the West Virginia Forestry Association were quick to point a finger and blame the other, but in the end, nothing was done by either side to reach a solution.

In light of the tragedy at Gatlinburg, it is unconscionable that our policymakers are not able to agree on a funding strategy so that West Virginia has a capable, well-run forestry division. Even in better economic times, that agency was never adequately funded as compared to surrounding states.

Nor can volunteer fire departments be expected to pick up the slack. They need financial assistance, too. Volunteer firefighters across West Virginia are some of the most caring, conscientious, capable individuals I know. What they do is extraordinary, and they are essential to the wildfire control effort. But they lack the manpower and resources.

Given West Virginia’s aging population, many rural areas in the state don’t even have a population base to support a department adequately. It is time for West Virginia to fund our volunteer fire departments and the Division of Forestry to a level that protects the citizens of this state. We cannot afford to do less. We cannot afford to ignore the problem and let it linger. A means of funding must be forthcoming and soon. Lives depend on it.

Robert Beanblossom, a member of the Society of American Foresters, is a retired state Division of Natural Resources employee, with 42 years of service. He is currently doing volunteer work with the U.S. Forest Service at the Cradle of Forestry in western North Carolina. His email is

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