Full Professor of Geography, University of Tennessee, Knoxville
Henri D. Grissino-Mayer is a James R. Cox Professor in the Department of Geography at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville and Director of the Laboratory of Tree-Ring Science. He studies ecosystem disturbance processes and uses dendrochronology, the science of tree rings, to learn how environments have changed over time. His research concentrates on using tree-ring data to analyze the history of wildfires, the history of past climate, and the dating of historic structures and objects. He has given nearly 500 professional presentations and invited talks and published over 130 peer-reviewed papers. In recent months, Dr. Grissino-Mayer has been sought after for interviews, news stories, and documentaries about the Gatlinburg firestorm, which he had long predicted based on his and his colleagues’ research on fire history.
Henri is speaking at
Authors: Henri D Grissino-Mayer; Charles W lafon; Sally P HornWe have been conducting fire history research using tree-ring and sedimentary charcoal proxy records from southeastern forests since 1993, focusing mainly in the yellow pine and mixed pine hardwood forests of the Appalachian Mountains. Our tree-ring studies have shown that area-wide fires burned about once every 7 years (with a range from 5 to 13 years) from the mid-1700s until the early 1900s. One of the sedimentary charcoal studies that we conducted in soil of Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GSMNP) revealed that fire was a recurring phenomenon there for thousands of years. One major conclusion we have reached is that fire exclusion practices conducted over the past 80 years have caused unprecedented levels of fuels to build up, waiting to be ignited during a drought event. This is exactly what happened on November 23, 2016, when a wildfire broke out in GSMNP. On November 28, fanned by hurricane-force winds, the wildfire blew into two tourism-based communities, Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. Over 2,400 structures were destroyed and 14 people were killed. We argue that a denser network of fire history sites in the eastern U.S. will provide useful and immediately relevant data for better understanding wildfire risk in the wildland-urban interface.
We now have 100 million people living in the wildland-urban interface and intermix zones of the United States, with a large majority of these actually living in the eastern U.S. The largest unpopulated area in the eastern U.S. lies in 520,000 acres in Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GSMNP) which straddles the Tennessee-North Carolina border. Unfortunately, this wildland area is surrounded by many urban communities known for environmental tourism, such as Cherokee in North Carolina and Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge in Tennessee. Residents of these communities have little knowledge about the wildfire risk that exists in these communities, where fuels have built up continuously for over 80 years due to fire exclusion practices in GSMNP. On November 23, 2016, a wildfire ignited in GSMNP 5.5 miles from Gatlinburg and burned innocuously for four days, but hurricane-force winds on November 28 blew the fire northward into the town, eventually killing 14 people and burning over 2,400 structures, even into Pigeon Forge. This firestorm should be raising a new level of awareness of wildfire hazard in these two communities, but sadly the emphasis is on re-building the two towns to ensure the flow of tourism dollars into the local economies.