The burn ban issued on Oct. 26 by the Governor’s office has been cancelled. Recent rains have started to replenish the water table and lessen dry forest conditions. While the ban has been lifted, caution should always be exercised.
Fires on leaseholds are subject to state burn regulations and may require a permit. State permits can be applied for online at https://agriculture.tn.gov/OnlineBurnPermitPublic/default.aspx>
What We Learned from the Tennessee Fires
While Sewanee was spared the devastation from recent forest fires in the state, many residents have been wondering whether something similar could happen in Sewanee. The answer is yes. First, a very brief forest history, and then some tips for minimizing the risk of wildfire.
The oak hickory forests that dominate our campus and surrounding Domain do burn from time to time. In fact, many scientists and land managers feel that they require periodic fire for their establishment, and without continued periodic fire, they are likely to decline.
According to the United States Forest Service, the forests of the Cumberland Plateau, like the Smoky Mountain forests to our east, are thought to have burned every 2-14 years between the late 1700s and the early 1900s. Some charcoal fragments found in Appalachian soils have been dated to fires 3,000 years ago. These periodic fires favored many of the species that we see today in and around our homes here in Sewanee.
During the early 1900s, fire suppression greatly reduced the number of fires in our forest. Without these fires, leaves combine with fallen limbs and dry grasses and accumulate in the forest. Over time as these fuels accumulate, the forest composition shifts toward species that are less able to tolerate periodic fire. On Sewanee’s Domain, it is likely that you have seen or smelled a prescribed fire in the last several years. Several faculty members research the role of historic fire in the creation of our forests, and periodically conduct a controlled (formally known as a prescribed) fire to reduce our wildfire risk and perpetuate our current forests for future generations.
A prescribed fire is generally not feasible however near homes and businesses, and in many parts of the community of Sewanee. Similar to Gatlinburg, Sewanee’s homes and businesses are built within a matrix of forest that is by nature meant to burn. To minimize our risk of such a devastating natural phenomenon, there are many things that we as a community of homeowners and business owners can do. Here’s how we all can help.
Adhere to the fire ban and alert the police if you hear, smell, or see any questionable activity.
For homeowners: clear needles, leaves, and other debris from the roof, gutters, eaves, porches, and decks. This reduces the chance of embers igniting your home.
To reduce ember penetration, replace or repair loose or missing roof shingles or tiles, and caulk any gaps or openings on roof edges.
Cover exterior attic vents, and enclose under-eave and soffit vents with metal wire mesh no larger than ⅛-inch to prevent embers from entering the home.
Remove items stored under decks or porches; for more protection, owners can replace vegetation in these areas with rock or gravel.
Remove flammable items within 30 feet of all structures, including firewood piles, portable propane tanks, and dry and dead vegetation.
Dry grass and shrubs are fuel for wildfire, so keep your lawn hydrated and maintained. If it is brown, trim it to reduce fire intensity, and don’t let debris and lawn cuttings linger. Dispose of these items quickly to reduce fuel for fire.
Fire can spread to tree tops. If you have tall trees on your property, prune low-hanging branches 6 to 10 feet from the ground; for smaller trees, prune low-hanging branches up to a third of the tree’s height. Remove tall grasses, vines, and shrubs from under trees.
Avoid placing dry wood against your home.
Lastly, if any of us were to be in close proximity to a fire, please communicate to the appropriate authorities, namely the police and to your family, that you are safe and clear from the danger, especially if you are visiting family or on vacation.
Unlike many areas of the state, the Domain contains many fire lanes built for prescribed fire and control of any wildfire outbreak that might occur. Sewanee maintains a crew of certified wildland firefighting students that reduce fuel loading in our forests with regular fire prescriptions and stand ready to serve if a wildfire were to occur. On top of all this, Sewanee is blessed with a well-equipped and trained Volunteer Fire Department.
Other strengths of our community include the University’s emergency measures that would be enacted if necessary, for example, evacuation plans, partnerships with local agencies for support, and a close network of health professionals and services in the area. Our regional medical hospital system (STRHS) has a network of medical professionals who already serve our emergency needs quite well. Finally, we also have redundant water supply systems as part of our utility infrastructure—another reason to be grateful to our Sewanee Utility District.
—reported by Eric Hartman. Special thanks to Ben Beavers, Nate Wilson and Ken Smith for their contribution to this.