By Jeff Dennis
In November of 2016, the outskirts of Gatlinburg, Tennessee was hit with a scorching wildfire that was inspired by drought and driven by record high winds. The Chimney Tops 2 Fire originated in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, with roughly 55 miles of stream water within the burn zone.
The Twin Creeks Science Center, a state of the art facility that opened in 2007 at a cost of 4.5-million dollars, is constantly monitoring data after the wildfire. Park spokesperson Dana Soehn relays that the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GSMNP) is the number one most visited National Park in the U.S. due to its location near the East Coast population centers.
Cassius Cash is the Superintendent of the GSMNP and says records show conditions on the ground were dry in 2016, with a 15-inch rainfall deficit heading into Thanksgiving. “The fire at Two Chimneys crept into the duff layer as we experienced high humidity and inversion heading into the holiday weekend,” said Clay. “But by Sunday November 29 the inversion lifted, the humidity dipped to 8-percent, and a high-wind advisory was issued for Monday.”
The winds howled overnight and by daybreak Monday Gatlinburg was smoked out, with at least one gust of wind measured at 87-miles per hour. The resulting firestorm did not last much more than 24 hours, but the random catastrophic damage and loss of life that occurred continue to have a lasting effect on the area.
GSMNP fire ecologist Rob Klein already has many scientific studies underway, giving them a solid baseline of date to compare pre-fire and post-fire environments. “The speed of this fire left a mosaic pattern, and not a footprint of devastation,” said Klein.
The GSMNP is classified as a temperate rainforest since it receives somewhere between 40 to 80-inches of rain annually. They have documented 400 species of moss, 800 species of lichens and over 1500 species of flowering plants.
In March of 2017 fisheries biologist, Caleb Abramson conducted an electro-fishing demonstration at Fighting Creek in the GSMNP for several media members. We were delighted to net and view multiple species of stream fish including several rainbow trout, the most prolific species in the Smokies.
Conferring with Abramson two years later in Spring of 2019 to follow-up about trout recovery after the wildfire, he shared some interesting data. “The natural cycle of droughts and floods play a major role in annual fish populations,” said Abramson.
“Visiting regular survey sights in 2017, we found that trout populations were down by as much as 50-percent in some areas due to the devastating drought in 2016,” said Abramson. The Chimney Tops 2 Fire was in a relatively confined corridor, and the data in fish populations came from a broader area. “Stream conditions changed again with 120-inches of rainfall in the GSMNP in 2018.”
“Spring fishing is picking up for local anglers, but flow levels are still quite high, since we recorded 14.5-inches of rain in February alone,” said Abramson. “Water temps in the East Prong of the Little River have been as high as 53-degrees, with lows in the lower 40’s. Fish are becoming active again with the increased air and water temps.”
Water chemistry and turbidity data remain in normal ranges post-wildfire in LeConte Creek and the West Prong of the Little Pigeon. Fly-fisherman need to plan on using high-water techniques until the stream flows reduce. Besides rainbow trout and brown trout, other species found in the streams include bass, chubs, darters and native brook trout.
The author’s Lowcountry Outdoors blog is celebrating a tenth anniversary in 2019.
Photo By Jeff Dennis
Rainbow Trout from Fighting Creek in the Great Smoky Mountains