Photos show forest growth following 2016 Chimney Tops fire in Smokies

Smoky Mountains

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) — The Great Smoky Mountains National Park has released photos showing the extent of growth in the Chimney Tops area following the 2016 wildfire that burned most of the area and killed 14 people in and around Gatlinburg.

The fire burned 11,000 acres in the park across the rough, rocky terrain in the area. Charges were dismissed against two juveniles in the setting of the fire. The photos compared the same views three years apart from August 2017, nine months after the fire, and August 2020.

“Before the fire, the Chimney Tops Trail was one of the most popular hiking destinations in the park,” the park said in a release. “A short hike rewarded visitors at the summit with striking panoramic views. But a combination of severe fire and high winds during the Chimney Tops 2 event removed much of the trees and soils near the summit, leaving behind bare rock.”

Most of the Chimney Tops Trail is now open but the final quarter of a mile is still closed. A new observation deck has been opened for hikers to view the Chimney Tops summits from a distance. The park is using the photographs to determine when the summit will be stable enough to reestablish the final section of the trail.

“The succession of plant communities following the high intensity burn at this site is typical for revegetation in the southern Appalachians following extreme disturbance,” park spokeswoman Dana Soehn said. “At the same time, the steep slopes at this site are geologically dynamic so any regrowth has the potential to slough off due to erosion or landslides. “

Red spruce, yellow birch and rhododendron took up residence near the summit before the fire. Now, fire cherry and birch are colonizing the slope. The park says the new growth is mostly pine and hardwood trees.

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