Firefighters Take to Great Smoky Mountains as National Park Starts Prescribed Burns

by Jon D. B.
A prescribed burn in Cades Cove, Great Smoky Mountains National Park. (Photo credit: NPS Photo, Media release)

Extensive prescribed burns are coming to Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GRSM) as November rolls in, and visitors should expect to see smoke, flames, and firefighters around Cades Cove.

Perhaps the most iconic destination in the Smokies, Cades Cove has been an Appalachian hub for centuries. As part of the beloved national park, it boasts gorgeous Tennessee scenery, fascinating history, and bountiful wildlife watching. And the park aims to protect all of this with further prescribed burning.

Prescribed burns, or seasonal controlled burns, “help perpetuate native herbaceous species that provide high quality cover and foraging opportunities for a diversity of wildlife including deer, turkeys, and ground nesting birds,” GRSM tells Outsider via media release.

Per their release, Great Smoky Mountain National Park and Appalachian Piedmont Coastal Fire Management Zone staff plan to burn approximately 1,200 acres of fields within Cades Cove. So long as weather permits, these man-made burn operations will take place between Tuesday, November 1 and Tuesday, November 22.

A prescribed burn in Cades Cove, Great Smoky Mountains National Park. (Photo credit: NPS Photo, Media release)

“Appalachian Piedmont Coastal Zone Fire Staff are excited to lead prescribed burn operations in Cades Cove this year to meet field restoration goals in the Smokies,” offers Fire Management Officer Brian Tonihka. “Notably, we will be using Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) in ignition operations for the burns, which will be a first for the National Park Service in the Southeast region. This new technology provides a great opportunity to improve efficiency and operational safety.”

Great Smoky Mountains National Park’s 20 Year History with Prescribed Burns

For the past two decades, GRSM park managers have conducted burns during both spring and fall. Specific prescription parameters are required to do so, and the result is the safe reduction of fuels for wildfires. In addition, these burns restore meadow habitats and maintain the historic landscape of Cades Cove.

To partake in prescribed burning, GRSM staff closely monitor fire weather conditions. These include vegetation and soil moisture, wind speed and direction, temperature, and relative humidity. Doing so ensures that conditions meet the burn plan objectives for the site.

As for this year, incoming precipitation for the East Tennessee area will “improve the opportunity for prescription parameters to be met,” Great Smoky Mountains National Park cites.

As a result, the burns are a-go, and “Visitors should expect to see firefighters and equipment along Sparks Lane, Hyatt Lane, and the Cades Cove Loop Road,” GRSM adds.

In addition, the closure of Sparks Lane and the access road and trailhead for the Abrams Falls Trail may be necessary during certain operational periods. But the CC loop road and historic structures will remain open to visitor use. Brief delays and temporary closures may occur, however, in order to ensure public safety during burn operations.

Specifically, the crew plans to burn the following units: 

  • Cable House, 97 acres
  • Cemetery Marsh, 291 acres
  • Tipton Oliver, 257 acres
  • Maple Branch, 377 acres
  • Sparks, 164 acres
  • Martha’s Branch, 17 acres.

Please be aware that visiting during Great Smoky Mountains National Park during the month of November may result in a smoky, hazy visit in the Tennessee side of the park. Fire managers also ask that motorists reduce speed in work zones, but refrain from stopping in the roadways. If smoke is present, motorists should roll up windows and turn on headlights.

For more on the current status of GRSM, see our Great Smoky Mountains National Park Kicks Off Phased Reopening next.