Photo Credit: FAC Net member Frank Riley hosted the Southern Blue Ridge Fire Learning Network met last month to discuss their recent wildfire season and plans for moving forward. Photo by Avery Lennard, The Nature Conservancy

Did you know they have federally listed endangered green pitcher plants in the mountains of north Georgia? Me neither.

I learned this (and got to see some of these carnivorous plants) while participating in the 12th annual Southern Blue Ridge Fire Learning Network (SBR FLN) workshop last month. Another thing I learned about is the extraordinary degree to which this region is dominated by the Chattahoochee National Forest. The USDA Forest Service is by far the largest landowner, and the Forest backs up against every development and farm in the area.

Workshop attendees examining native pitcher plants

Workshop attendees enjoyed the opportunity to see endangered green pitcher plants during the field trip. Click on the image above to learn more about these plants. Credit Brenda Wichmann, The Nature Conservancy

I marveled at the upscale neighborhoods that are popping up at an increasing rate in those few places that aren’t part of the Chattahoochee. Steep places.

Forest Service Staff Making a Difference in Their Communities

Local staff of the USDA Forest Service (or “Forestry Service” as the locals call them) are deeply engaged with the other folks who live here. Forest leaders have made it a priority for staff to use “Stevens money” (now known as Community Wildfire Protection funds) to conduct prescribed burns on adjacent state and private lands to improve forest health and reduce wildfire risk to neighborhoods. The Forest Service along with the Georgia Forestry Commission (GFC) also want to put smoke up in the air close to where people live as a way to maintain and build community support for fire use. (GFC burned 8,600 acres last year on private and state lands in the mountains.)

I’ve traveled to a lot of fire-prone areas dominated by public land in the U.S. and, although there’s been progress in some areas, getting people to tolerate controlled burning near their homes is a challenge. So why are they having success in north Georgia? One reason is that the South still has a fire culture, although that is changing as people move there from other parts of the country. Another reason, according to the local Forest Service leaders I spoke with, is a widespread and growing public awareness of about wildfire risk. The Forest, GFC and Frank Riley with the Chestatee-Chattahoochee Resource Conservation and Development Council have been working for years in Towns County (and more recently in adjacent counties) to raise awareness about the need for residents to create defensible space around their homes, be ready to evacuate, and apply for permits before burning debris.

State and federal agency staff told me that this outreach makes it easier for them to convince residents to let them conduct controlled burns on their lands because they already understand the need to reduce fuels.

A Different Agenda This Year

I’ve attended most of the SBR FLN’s previous workshops, which typically focus on prescribed fire, fire history, and forest ecology and management. This year was different, because six months ago, at the height of an extreme drought, wildfires burned more than 50,000 acres in north Georgia and more than 100,000 acres elsewhere in the region. In Sevier County, Tennessee, 14 people died and a half a billion dollars’ worth of property burned down in the Chimney Tops 2 Fire. Most of the people attending this particular workshop had managed those wildfires, witnessing fire behavior they had never seen before in the region.

A map of the Southeast with dozens of fire icons representing wildfires across the region

The significance of the fall wildfire season in the southern Appalachians is reflected in this Rock Mountain fire incident management team map. Credit Pacific Northwest Incident Management

So, organizers decided to design this year’s workshop as an opportunity to reflect on and learn from the fires, and to consider how the regional network might adapt its approach following such a significant event.

Many of our discussions this year focused on the human element, and the need to do more to engage residents in building sustainable local wildfire adaptation capacity across the southern Appalachians. (Workshop presentations are available online.) In addition to prescribed burning, Firewise U.S.A., community planning, evacuation preparedness and fire prevention are important parts of community wildfire adaptation in the southern Apps. (All but two of last fall’s wildfires were human-caused.)

Smoke carrying through the trees near a home. There is a buffer ("defensible space") between the home and its surrounding forest.

Thanks to defensible space (minus the firewood on the deck), this home withstood the 2016 wildfires, despite how close it got to the structure. Credit: Frank Riley, Chestatee-Chattahoochee Resource Conservation and Development Council, Inc.

A history of cooperation among federal, state and local agencies paid off when the fires started. We heard stories about potentially disastrous fires that were controlled due to effective response that was enabled by previous cross-boundary controlled burning and fire training that the SBR FLN helped facilitate.

But What About all Those Fire-Scorched Landscapes?

The fires, for the most part, didn’t reach forest canopies, but they did consume an unprecedented amount of organic material that had accumulated on the forest floor. Tree roots were damaged and trunks were girdled, but it’s impossible to know which trees will live and which will die over the next few years. Most land managers I’ve spoken with are optimistic that the ecological impacts of the fires — in Georgia and the other states too — will be positive overall. Some plants need bare mineral soil to get established and, despite the steep terrain, erosion hasn’t been a big problem and water quality was not affected.

A burn scar on the trunk of a tree

An example of how some of the trees were damaged by last year’s Rock Mountain Fire. Credit: Brenda Wichmann, The Nature Conservancy

As for the social impacts, there is clearly a heightened awareness of wildfire risk among residents. The challenge for SBR FLN partners now is turning that awareness into action. (For those people in Tennessee who lost homes and businesses, of course, the situation is much different and our hearts go out to them.)

Frank Riley and the Chattahoochee’s fire management officer, Mike Davis, emailed me separately last week to tell me how they have expanded their partnerships and project work into Rabun County since the workshop. Another promising part of the picture is related to funding. The Cherokee Foothills Joint Chiefs Project has been funded for two years. That effort continues to emphasize fuel reduction and wildfire outreach work in north Georgia and northwestern South Carolina.

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