How Devastating Gatlinburg Wildfires are Bringing Some Form of Hope

by Jon D. B.

Wildfires are nature’s phoenix. The flames take, and the ashes bring forth new life. Such is the case for a near-extinct Tennessee tree species after the deadly 2016 Smoky Mountain Wildfires.

As the Pilot Mountain State Park Wildfire rages on in North Carolina, many of us Appalachian-hearted Americans are reminded of the devastating 2016 Smoky Mountains Wildfires. Also known as the Gatlinburg Wildfire, the blaze took 14 lives and injured nearly 200. In the course of 30 days, it would burn over 15 square miles. Soon, it would become the largest wildfire in Great Smoky Mountains National Park history.

November of 2021 marks five years since that catastrophic blaze. No wildfire has proven so deadly in the eastern U.S. since 1947. That year, the Great Fires of Maine took as many lives. Yet as shocking as it feels, there is always a silver lining to be found following a wildfire.

For Tennesseans and North Carolinians alike, it comes in the form of a nearly-extinct tree species.

“I had no idea there was so much American chestnut up there,” Jennifer Franklin, professor of forestry at the University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture, tells Knoxville News Sentinel

From The Great Chesnut Blight to The Smoky Mountain Wildfires, The American Chesnut Refuses to Bow Out

Growing up in Knoxville, legends of the American chestnuts once dominating the East Tennessee landscape loomed large. The species’ chestnuts were akin to folkloric gold. This, and their near-extinction, is due to the chestnut blight, a horrific disease accidentally imported from Asia in the early 1900s. Before it, American chestnuts dominated Appalachian forests. Now they’re all but extinct.

“It was amazing because everything else burned off around them,” Franklin says of the ones that are left.

There, in the aftermath of those horrible 2016 wildfires, were American chestnuts regrowing on the TN – NC border. This is a best-case-scenario for Franklin, too, who studies prescribed burns and forestry. And as devastating as wildfires are, she will forever be in awe of how much they feed nature through rebirth.

“Those root systems that survived, those trees, they just came back really strongly,” Franklin continues. “Some of them we counted over 100 sprouts from a single root system,” she says of the American chestnuts, oaks, shortleaf pine and Table Mountain pines studied.

The Resurgence of a Wild American Icon

RUPERT, VERMONT: An illustrated sign describes a field of young American Chestnut tree growing in a field. August 19, 2017 at the Merck Forest and Farmland Center in Rupert, Vermont. The Merck Forest Farmland Center, a non-profit educational organization on 3,162 acres in southern Vermont, manages a pilot program to help restore the American Chestnut tree suffering from a debilitating blight, or fungus, throughout the US. (Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images)

Through her work, Franklin has found that the prescribed burns in the Smokies accomplish the exact same outcomes as raging wildfires, too. “I thought it was interesting that the prescribed fires done in earlier years by the park staff had similar effects to wildfire,” she continues for the newspaper.

It’s difficult to find that silver lining when loved ones were lost (alongside countless wildlife) in the 2016 Smoky Mountain Wildfires. But if there is one, Franklin reiterates, it’s the resurgence of nature back to her, well, natural state.