Drought-driven fires traumatize a region that rejects global warming
GATLINBURG, PIGEON FORGE, Tennessee––Animal victims of the firestorm that swept the resort towns of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge in Sevier County, Tennessee on November 28-29, 2016 appear to have been few, but it would be difficult to overstate the trauma felt by residents of a region where disbelief that human activity has triggered irreversible longterm global warming is a near-universal political posture, while fear of hellfire as eternal punishment for sins including acceptance of evolution remains an almost equally universally held article of religious faith.
While the Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge fires are almost certain to be memorialized in bluegrass music, and perhaps even in song by Sevier County native Dolly Parton, whether the fires’ effects will be felt in Washington D.C., eight hours’ drive northeast, remains to be seen. Donald Trump, elected U.S. president on November 8, 2016, has already appointed several climate change deniers to key positions in his administration, with others reportedly likely to be appointed to head the Departments of Interior and Energy.
Ironically Trump won 78% of the vote in Sevier County, where weeks of unseasonable drought preceded as many as 30 separate fire outbreaks, beginning after a blaze called the Chimney Tops Fire had burned out of control on Sugarland Mountain near Newfound Gap Road in Great Smokies National Park for several days.
Most of the November 28, 2016 fire outbreaks appeared to be caused by embers from the Chimney Tops Fire, driven by windstorms gusting at 30 to 70 miles per hour, and at times reportedly hitting 80 miles an hour. Some fires may have resulted from downed power lines.
Thick smoke from the Sevier County wildfires even hit Cincinnati, about four hours’ drive straight north.
The total razed area, from all fires combined, came to about 15,700 acres––about 10% of the size of the Station Fire that ravaged the Angeles National Forest east of Los Angeles in September 2009, and 1% of the size of the fire that destroyed the city of Fort McMurray in northern Alberta, Canada, raging from May 1, 2016 to July 5.
Rain at last
By evening on November 29, 2016 the Chimney Tops Fire and subsidiary fires appeared to be controlled, or at least contained, by long awaited rain. While firefighters expected to spend several more days or even weeks ensuring that fires do not re-erupt, most emergency service providers in the area turned to assessing the damage, clearing away debris, and planning the recovery effort for the region.
Economically dependent on tourism, Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge each lost several tourist attractions, accommodations, and restaurants. But none of the major animal-related attractions were significantly harmed, according to early reports.
Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies
Amid the human drama of evacuations and separated families desperately networking to find loved ones, “One building many people are very concerned about is the Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies,” reported WBIR 10News, the NBC affiliate in Knoxville.
Aquarium general manager Ryan DeSear, responsible for overseeing the care of the 10,518 resident animals, mostly fish, “was one of the last people out of the building at 7:45 p.m.,” WBIR 10News added, “and said he had to force many of the workers to leave because they didn’t want to leave the animals without help.
“They were force evacuated,” said DeSear. “To them, every animal has a name. You don’t give that up.”
But, DeSear continued, “Nothing is more important than human life. Fish can be replaced. It sucks.”
Philosophy under fire
DeSear was rebuked for this remark by some online animal advocates for allegedly demonstrating indifference toward the suffering of fish.
According to the utilitarian approach to animal rights philosophy espoused by Peter Singer, however, whose 1975 book Animal Liberation helped to inspire the animal rights movement, the appropriate calculation would weigh the future potential of the Ripley’s Aquarium staff against that of the fish who might have been doomed by the fire.
According to the somewhat different approach argued by Tom Regan in The Case for Animal Rights (1983), the appropriate calculation would be based on what might be possible. The staff could be evacuated; the fish could not have been.
Either way, DeSear made the right call, both according to animal rights philosophy and according to circumstance.
“The animals are safe”
“DeSear said as long as the building had power and didn’t catch fire, the animals should be safe,” WBIR News10 continued. “When everything is functioning normally, the animals can survive for 24 hours without human intervention,” running on generator power.
“Before DeSear left, he did a final check of the animals,” WBIR News10 finished, “and said they were behaving normally. He took that as a good sign, because animals have a special sense of danger, and they didn’t appear to be affected.”
At 11:53 a.m. on November 19, about 16 hours after evacuating, DeSear posted to Facebook, “We are grateful to have had the police escort our emergency team back into the aquarium early this morning to check on the well being of our animals. We have a team of marine biologists and life support experts inside the aquarium and are happy to report that the animals are safe.”
Dollywood eagles saved
The Dollywood theme park near Gatlinburg escaped fire damage. “The birds at the Eagle Mountain Bird Sanctuary in Dollywood were safely evacuated. Birds from the nearby American Eagle Foundation sanctuary located near Dollywood were also safely evacuated,” reported Les Roop of the Huntsville, Alabama Daily News.
Earlier, American Eagle Foundation staff posted to Facebook, “Around 8 p.m. [on November 28], with the fire only miles away and a mandatory people evacuation in place, the AEF staff began conducting an emergency bird evacuation, something we have never had to do before. Our AEF first responders wasted no time rushing from their homes to our headquarters and loading somewhere around 50-60 birds into travel kennels and into every available vehicle. It wasn’t graceful, but we did our best to retrieve every bird and then load about 40-50 pounds of raptor food along with the birds. These birds are now resting safely in individual kennels at several AEF staff member’s homes 10-plus miles away from the fires.”
Ober Gatlinburg mini-zoo unharmed
American Eagle Foundation founder Al Cecere “went to Dollywood to check on our Eagle Mountain Sanctuary Eagles,” the post continued. “Unfortunately, in the dark, with ashy hazy air, steep leafy hillsides, and other staff being turned away by police while trying to bring extra travel kennels to Dollywood park, we were unable to catch and rescue these eagles” until morning. The Dollywood eagles spent the night “hanging out in their aviaries, albeit the air quality was not optimal,” the post concluded.
Despite erroneous early reports that the Ober Gatlinburg resort and mini-zoo had been destroyed, both survived with minimal damage. The mini-zoo advertises “Bears, river otters, bobcats, [a] nocturnal house, birds of prey and more!”
Great Smokies National Park closed
The 522,000-acre Great Smokies National Park was closed indefinitely, including about 800 miles of hiking trails.
The National Park Service had “no immediate word on the toll to the park’s many animals including its famous bears and elk,” reported Les Roop of the Huntsville, Alabama Daily News. “The park is also a World Heritage Site,” Roop mentioned, “with more than 3,500 plant species, 100 natural species of trees, and numerous endangered animal species, including the world’s greatest diversity of salamanders.”
Hosting more than nine million visitors per year, Great Smokies National Park attracts about twice as many people as Grand Canyon National Park, the second most visited park in the U.S. National Park system.
Fire toll much less than hunting
Though wildlife is likely to suffer from displacement, the toll from the Chimney Top wildfires will almost certainly be less than the annual toll from legal sport hunting.
Among the designated target species in Sevier County are deer, 404 of whom have already been shot by rifle, muzzleloader, and bow-and-arrow thus far in 2016; bear, coyotes, and feral pigs; birds including three species of geese, quail, wild turkeys, ducks, gallinules and moorhens; “small game” including rabbits, squirrels, skunks, raccoons, opossums and armadillos, and “furbearer” species including beaver, weasels, bobcats, foxes, muskrats, otters, and mink.
As evacuations ahead of anticipated disaster go, the evacuation of most of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge was minor: from 14,000 to 16,000 people relocated, according to official estimates, mostly without incident, of whom about 10% were housed temporarily in emergency shelters, while many of their pets found accommodation at boarding kennels, veterinary clinics, and the public animal shelters serving the region.
The Humane Society of the Tennessee Valley, in Knoxville, temporarily housed 21 cats and 7 dogs who were evacuated from the Smoky Mountain Animal Clinic in Seymour, 17 miles west of Pigeon Forge, which in turn took in animals evacuated from the Sevier County Humane Society in Sevierville to make room for more incoming animals.
The Sevier County Humane Society also set up an overnight emergency animal shelter at the county fairgrounds.
Small as big wildfires go
As many as 1,700 homes and businesses in and around Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge were destroyed, including 300 structures in Gatlinburg itself, according to local media counts and maps posted to web sites. Through December 7, 14 people had died.
By contrast, 80,000 people were evacuated because of the Fort McMurray wildfire, which razed 1,600 homes and businesses. Two people died in a car crash while trying to escape the Fort McMurray wildfire.
The largest wildfire in U.S. history, the Great Fire of 1910, razed about three million acres in northeastern Washington and Idaho––an area about the size of Connecticut.
Multiple wildfires in Texas, another bastion of climate change denial and belief in hellfire for lives of sin, cumulatively razed four million acres in 2011.
Worst fires on U.S. record
The most costly single wildfire outbreak in recent U.S. history, before the Sevier county fires, was the 1991 Berkeley Hills fire, which razed 640 homes in Berkeley and Oakland, California. The 2009 Station Fire east of Los Angeles did extensive damage to the Angeles National Forest, but destroyed only 89 homes.
At least three urban fires in U.S. history have been more damaging than all but one wildfire, in terms of property losses and human deaths.
The Great Chicago Fire of 1871 killed 300 people and left as many as 100,000 people homeless, but was rivaled in amount of property damage done by the Great Boston Fire of 1872, which killed 13 people and destroyed 776 buildings, mostly businesses.
Worst U.S. wildfire of all
But the lesser known Peshtigo Fire of 1871, a wildfire that erupted in Wisconsin on the same day as the Chicago fire, razed three whole towns and a forest area twice the size of Rhode Island, officially killing 1,182 people, with perhaps as many more dead but unidentified.
The Chicago, Boston, and Peshtigo fires all were dwarfed by the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire. Together, the San Francisco earthquake and fire killed more than 3,000 people, displacing as many as 300,000.