The Environmental Journal of Southern Appalachia
Friday, 10 March 2023 11:23

2016 Smokies wildfires: Six years later, the good and the bad come into focus as natural recovery continues

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COVER 1208 GatlinburgsInferno1Journalists and park officials document damage from the November 2016 wildfires that killed at least 15 people and left hundreds of dwellings and businesses in ruins. Thomas Fraser/Hellbender Press via Knoxville Mercury

How the 2016 Great Smoky Mountains National Park wildfire affected salamanders and other life, six years on

GATLINBURG  The disastrous Chimney Tops 2 wildfire of 2016 occurred some six years ago, but researchers are still looking at its ecological effects.

The Discover Life in America 2023 Colloquium brought together researchers this month from different fields and universities to present findings on research in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. 

Researchers presented on many topics, ranging from trout to the history of the Mingus family in the park.

One such presentation, the first of the day, from William Peterman, associate professor in wildlife ecology and management at Ohio State University, focused on the effects wildfires had on salamander populations, which he described as negative.

Other presenters touched on the wildfire’s effects as well, including its effects on vegetation and its beneficial effects on the diversity of bird species.

“Smoky Mountains is the self-proclaimed salamander capital of the world,” Peterman said. He focused his study on the plethodontid family of salamanders, which breathe through their skin.

“Kind of think of them as a walking lung,” he said.

Peterman said the Chimney Tops 2 Fire in November 2016 and the Camp Branch Fire in Western North Carolina the same year had an impact on these salamanders.

He said wildfires had “significantly impacted” salamanders from the plethodontid family, more than studies had shown controlled burns to do. He said the plethodontid abundance dropped the further the study got from unburned habitats, which was true of every species of the 12 at which the study looked. He said however there were indications the plethodontids were coming back to older areas, and that the “spatial pattern” of how this occurred was an opportunity for further research.

In response to questions, he said the reasoning behind the decline in the salamanders' abundance was “mixed.” Sometimes, he said, they died directly in the fire, while other times they might have been affected by food or habitat.

Peterman was not the only one at the meeting who spoke about wildfires' effects.  Margaret Cumberland, the flora field ecologist at the Appalachians and Cumberland Plateau Domain which is part of Battelle’s National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON) spoke generally of the different field research stations her organization operated. One area of her research involved herbaceous biomass and fire’s effects on it.

“I’ve been out there for many years after the fire looking at the effects,” she said. Her graph overall showed woody stemmed plants already on a decline in terms of biomass before the fire and continuing to decline after it, before trending back up and peaking in 2019. After that point they hit another decline and recovery.

Different kinds of species are coming back as saplings, some faster than others. She said, however, she and her organization were in the business of gathering data, not interpreting it.

“We don’t analyze it ourselves,” she said. “Please use our data and look for key effects.”

Graham Montgomery with the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of California, spoke to the effects the 2016 fire had on bird species. His talk focused on studies showing the park’s bird species over time and their distribution. He said certain species are colonizing brushier areas that have grown since the fires.

“It’s been good for bird diversity and species richness,” he said.

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Last modified on Sunday, 25 June 2023 16:55