controlled burn in the Smoky Mountains
April 27, 2023

You might be surprised to know that the National Park Service uses wildland fires to preserve plants and animals within Great Smoky Mountains National Park! Due to extensive research by scientists in the southern Appalachians and other areas, park managers have learned that fire is a natural process that helps to maintain a healthy ecosystem. In fact, they have determined that at least a dozen of the park’s plants and animals benefit from fire! Here are 3 interesting things to know about the management of wildland fires in the Smoky Mountains:

1. Wildfires Caused by Lightning May Be Allowed to Burn

smoke from a contained burn in Cades Cove

Records have shown that an average of two lightning-ignited forest fires happen in Great Smoky Mountains National Park each year, normally in May and June. These fires are most common in the low and mid-elevations which are dominated primarily by pine and oak forests. As long as these fires caused by lightning do not pose a threat to valuable or property life, they are allowed to burn in some areas of the park if the conditions are favorable. The purpose of this policy is to restore ecosystems to a more natural condition that existed prior to the region’s European settlement. There are about 1,000 acres that have burned from 1997 to 2000 due to this policy!

2. Prescribed Fires are Conducted Under Specific Conditions

Another one of the interesting things to know about the management of wildland fires in the Smoky Mountains is that prescribed fires are conducted under specific conditions, which include weather, fuel moisture, soil moisture, availability of trained fire-fighting personnel, and air quality conditions. These prescribed fires not only help invigorate species and ecosystems that benefit from fire but reduce the accumulations of dead wood and brush that could fuel a catastrophic fire under drought conditions. Scientific monitoring has shown that rare plant species have increased significantly following treatment with fire and that prescribed burns have benefited animals like the red-cockaded woodpecker!

3. Great Smoky Mountains National Park Divided Into Zones for Fire Management

mist and foggy morning in Cades Cove

Great Smoky Mountains National Park is divided into 3 zones to facilitate the management of wildland fires. The first zone incorporates most of the park boundary, as well as all of the historic and developed areas in the park. This includes many of the popular destinations that may be familiar to you, including Cades Cove, Sugarlands, Tremont, Roaring Fork, Cataloochee, and Deep Creek. The second zone serves as a buffer between Zones 1 and 3, and certain fires are allowed to burn if they do not threaten Zone 1 areas within 48 hours. Finally, zone 3 contains most of the undeveloped interior of the park. The fires within Zone 3 are allowed to burn if they stay within predetermined parameters and are not predicted to leave the zone within 48 hours.

As you can see, the effective management of wildland fires in the Smoky Mountains helps to benefit many of the plants and animals that you see in the park today! If you want to enjoy some of the park’s most spectacular flowering plants, here are 6 of the best places to spot Smoky Mountain wildflowers!