Wet start to 2019 could lessen major fire risk heading into fire season

Jonathan Roberts • Oct 7, 2019 at 7:25 PM

Tennessee’s abnormally wet weather in the first six months of the year could be its saving grace as the state enters peak fall fire season.

“We had abundant precipitation earlier this year that’s still in the ground, but what this drought is highly affecting is fine fuels — the leaves and grasses — but the larger material (is) still holding an abundant amount of moisture, and it’s the larger fuels that often give us a harder time when trying to control a forest fire,” said Tim Phelps, communications and outreach unit leader for the Tennessee Division of Forestry.

In East Tennessee, however, the dry weather has some drawing comparisons to 2016 — a year where 1,345 fires burned 85,324 acres across the state, the largest of which torched almost 18,000 acres in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. That blaze, which was suspected to be arson, killed 14 and destroyed or damaged more than 2,000 structures.

“We’re running extremely dry here in East Tennessee,” said James Heaton, a forestry technician with the Tennessee Division of Forestry in East Tennessee. “Our (Keetch-Byram Drought Index numbers) are in the (500) to 600 range — it is extremely dry.”

The KBDI Index is used to assess fire potential, according to the Wildland Fire Assessment System. A KBDI index in the 400-600 range is “typical of late summer, early fall,” with lower litter and duff layers “actively” contributing to fire intensity. Anything above 600 is “often associated with severe drought and increased wildfire occurrence,” which has Heaton concerned this year could be especially “active.”

Saturday, Heaton and other fire agencies got their first look at what the fall fire season might have in store when a brush fire burned around 15-20 acres in Carter County. Heaton said crews worked through Saturday, and the blaze was fully contained by Sunday afternoon. Phelps said across the state, there’s been “a little bit of an uptick” in fires over the last week, but that they’ve mostly been brush fires similar to the one in Carter County.

Over the weekend, there were 12 fires in East Tennessee, burning roughly 170 acres.

“I would equate this to 2016,” Heaton said of the lead up to this year’s fire season, adding that “a lot can happen” and if more rain falls “we may not have any” fires, but “if we get another dry period,” the region could “very easily have another bad fire season,” though he wouldn’t speculate if this year will be on-par, better or worse than what the region saw in 2016.

“It really just depends on getting a few days without rain,” Heaton said. “We may get rain at the beginning of the week, but two or three days with a little bit of wind, a little bit of sunshine, and we could be running fires — it really just depends on the nature of that rain.”

Rain is forecast for Tuesday and Saturday, but temperatures are expected to remain above average at least for the next 10 days.

Statewide, however, Phelps is confident the record-breaking rain that fell across much of the state — especially in East Tennessee — will help cut down the risk of large-scale forest fires, instead being more limited to brush and grass fires.

“I think the wildfire behavior is different than it was in 2016, and much more manageable — currently, and this precipitation we’re having now is certainly going to assist in that,” Phelps added. “Now, that doesn’t mean we’re going to let our guard down, we probably very quickly get back to drier conditions if the temperatures stay elevated and the sun shines a whole bunch.”

Because of the drought conditions, the state implemented its burn permit requirement about three weeks early in hopes to cut down on the risk of a fire sparking up before it traditionally begins permit requirements on Oct. 15.

“By implementing our permits early, that kind of gives us an opportunity to allow some burning, but not do an all out burn ban — yet still being in a restricted phase,” Heaton said.

And with peak fire season less than a month away, both Heaton and Phelps are urging people to “go the extra mile” because this “could be an exceptional year for fires.”

For more information, including burn permit requests, forecasts and fire prevention tips, visit http://www.burnsafetn.org/. Note: Burn permits in Carter and Johnson counties must be made by phone by calling 423-725-3281.