GATLINBURG, Tenn. (KWQC) — In the last few days, intense wildfires have been moving through eastern Tennessee. Some of the cities affected by the fire include Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg, two very popular tourist destinations located near the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
So far, the fires have killed 7, forced thousands from their homes and damaged or destroyed hundreds of area structures.
Warren Bielenberg, Information Officer for the National Park Service, said that it wasn’t the Smoky Mountains first bout with heavy flames. The largest fire in recent years occurred back in 2001, when 7,000 acres were charred by wildfire. In previous years, smaller fires between 250 and 300 acres were all that the park had experienced.
Bielenberg said large wildfires were unlikely in the eastern part of the country due to high amounts of rain that fall over the course of the year. If you have ever been to Gatlinburg, its impossible not to notice the extensive rolling mountains. Each ridge is blanketed in lush, green forest, a sign of moisture access.
Weather had a big impact on why the fires grew out of control so rapidly. The last time the region had a significant rain near 0.75″ occurred on August 8, 2016. By the month of November, the general area has typically averaged near 43.20″ of precipitation. So far, only 33.33″ has fallen in the course of 2016. This puts the region close to 10″ below the norm in precipitation accumulation. The lack of substantial rains for 3 months pushed eastern Tennessee into an exceptional drought, allowing for things to become extremely dry.
A cold front was also crossing the eastern United States on Monday, November 28, producing excessive winds. Wind gust reports from the National Weather Service office in Knoxville, Tennessee ranged between 50 and 60 mph on Monday. The dry forest area and high winds created an ideal environment for a rapid spread of flames.
According to Bielenberg, the wildfires grew to approximately 15,653 acres in size. This forced emergency evacuations of residents and tourists. Bielenberg said that the Governor of the State, Bill Haslam, stated it was the largest fire Tennessee has seen in more than 100 years.
Fires continue to burn around Gatlinburg this week. Bielenberg said most are now outside the Great Smoky Mountains National Park on private lands.