Wildfires as classrooms: WCU students study fire’s effects on Dicks Creek drainage

What was once a wildfire became an outdoor classroom for students in Western Carolina University’s Natural Resource Conservation and Management Program this spring. 

As part of a spring capstone course, 23 students studied four post-fire aspects of the forest ecosystem — forest composition, wildlife habitat, soil and water. Now, they’ve just finished compiling and analyzing the data they gleaned from the 728-acre burned area of the Dicks Creek drainage near Dillsboro.

Spring fire season arrives: Steady rain keeps wildfire to normal levels as region recovers from historic fall blazes

When rains finally quelled the flames of 2016’s historic fall fire season, firefighters breathed sighs of relief and mountain residents rejoiced in the newly smokeless air, but land managers were already looking ahead to springtime, when wildfires are typically even more severe and damaging than in the fall. 

At the time, the region was plunged in the most severe drought designation possible — even the days of steady rain that ended the fire season made barely a dent in it — and long-term forecasts were calling for a dry future.

Down to bare rock: Smokies’ Chimney Tops could be closed for years following fire

When starting the hike, it’s not immediately obvious why the Chimney Tops Trail should be appointed for long-term closure. The brook is babbling, the sun is shining and the trees are towering just as one would expect of a trail in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and the results of a recent trail rehabilitation effort make for exceedingly pleasant walking. 

But as the trail nears its terminus at the twin peaks of the Chimney Tops, the reason becomes abundantly clear. Its harbingers are announced with a jumble of burned branches here, an area of blackened ground there, and the sudden realization that, even on a brisk winter day when it’s hard to smell much at all, there’s a faint odor of charcoal in the air.

FAQ: The effects of WNC’s 2016 fire season

Did the fires hurt wildlife? 

Prescribed burning is often used as a tool to benefit wildlife by regenerating their habitat, and in the case of the slowly creeping ground fires that accounted for most of the burned area, wildlife are usually able to get out of the way as flames approach.

Wildfire impacts range from barely there to complete char, but true effects remain to be seen

It’s a warmer-than-average January day, the contours of the mountains visible from the highway beneath a thin covering of leafless tree branches under a half-blue sky. A U.S. Forest Service Jeep travels west on U.S. 74, bypassing Franklin and hanging a right for the winding road that leads to Wayah Bald. 

The vehicle pauses for a moment as it traverses a valley framed by Wayah’s upward-reaching face. The slope is mottled with patches of darkness that could almost pass for cloud shadows. 

Tracing the fire’s path

Now that the wildfires that ravaged Western North Carolina a couple of months ago are no longer active, U.S. Forest Service officials are beginning to assess the aftermath damages and create a plan of action for the spring. 

• Wildfire impacts range from barely there to complete char, but true effects remain to be seen
• FAQ: The effects of WNC’s 2016 fire season

A look back at 2016: Backcountry adventures, birthday celebrations and a wildfire season to remember

For those who love the outdoors, it’s not hard to list the reasons why Western North Carolina is a spectacular place to live, and from that standpoint, the year 2016 certainly didn’t fail to deliver. The curtains are now closing on 2016, but the year will get its proper send-off with this roundup of favorite moments and memorable stories from the past 12 months outdoors.

Firefighter pleas guilty to arson in Cherokee

A Cherokee firefighter has pled guilty to federal charges for intentionally starting seven wildfires on the Qualla Boundary between 2010 and 2014, which cost the Bureau of Indian Affairs a total of $106,700 to extinguish.

Park works to assess post-fire situation

The smoke has cleared from the Chimney Tops 2 Fire, which escaped the Great Smoky Mountains National Park Nov. 28 to cover more than 17,000 acres and result in 14 deaths, but park officials are just beginning the daunting task of dealing with the aftermath.

Two arrested for arson in Qualla wildfires

Two Cherokee men have been arrested in connection with wildfires set on the Qualla Boundary this fall. 

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