There’s nothing normal about what happened to Gatlinburg, Tennessee on Monday.
Sitting at the epicenter of a freakish fall warmth and drought, the scores of fires that raged throughout the southeast into late November had, until recently, spared this sleepy tourist town resting on the slopes of the Great Smoky Mountains. But as winds roared out of the south at up to 87 miles per hour ahead of an approaching cold front on the 28th, the little city’s luck ran out.
(Fire on the mountains near Gatlinburg captured in this photo by a local resident. Image source: Twitter.)
Somewhere, a spark lit. And the bone-dry hillsides filled with ready fuels combined with hurricane force gusts to do the rest. By early evening, the skies over Gatlinburg had been painted orange. Ash and embers were carried aloft by the winds. And all around the city, mountains caught fire and burned.
As fires raged, 14,000 people were forced to flee. Home after home was consumed. Now, at least 400 residences are thought to have been lost. Smoke and swiftly moving flames injured 45 while taking the lives of seven people who were tragically unable to escape the rapid onrush. And as neighborhoods were reduced to their foundations, 2,000 residents have been left stranded in Red Cross evacuation shelters.
Rains on Tuesday and Wednesday have, blessedly, tamped down many of the fires around Gatlinburg. That said, reports from CBC and the National Interagency Fire Center show that the (Chimney 2) blaze remains mostly uncontained, if rather less intense. So risks from the fire remain. Even more sadly, it appears that the full extent of the tragic damage and loss, as of Thursday morning, had not yet been fully realized. Estimates for destroyed or damaged homes continues to climb even as the number of persons lost to the flames keeps rising.
Largest Tennesee Fire in 100 (+) Years, Hottest Year on Record Globally
The Gatlinburg Fire was the largest fire to strike Tennessee in one hundred years. And when records for fires only go back about 100 years, you have to wonder if this isn’t another one of those 500 or 1,000 year climate/weather events that have been sparking off with increasing frequency across the U.S. and the world during the recent warm period. For like the Fort McMurray wildfire that forced an entire Canadian city to empty this spring, the Gatlinburg fire cannot be separated from the larger context of human caused climate change.
The fire erupted during the hottest year, globally, on record. It happened at a time when the Southeast was experiencing its own very abnormal drought. It lit, not during the peak of annual heat that is summer, but during the fall. And it happened in conjunction with an equally unusual mass after-season wildfire outbreak in the Smoky Mountains.
(Everything is Burning Around Us. In an escape attempt that is eerily similar to the flight of Trans Baikal natives half a world away just last year, a Gatlinburg resident attempts to flee a freakish fall firestorm spurred by conditions related to human caused climate change. Video source: Here.)
Though this is the largest fire to strike Tennessee in one hundred years, it can practically be said that what locals affectionately call ‘the volunteer state’ has never experienced conditions like those that led up to the Gatlinburg Fire. The Smoky Mountains where the fire burned get their name from the moist mists and fogs that tend to hang in the air and above the tree tops. It is a place known and named for its wet environment. So fires are rare and typically only happen during summer time.
But the added heat from climate change has altered the mountains. It has dried the landscape — turning the entire region into a firetrap during recent months. This extreme dry period is part of a new set of weather potentials for the region that are not normal. And as human fossil fuel burning forces the atmosphere to warm further, the intensity of droughts and wildfires that do occur in the south will continue to worsen.
Hat tip to Suzanne
Hat tip to Wili
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Hat tip to Colorado Bob