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Wildfire as a tool of terror (and my return to the Smokies)

Over the Thanksgiving holiday, I was aware that there was a significant series of wildfires burning in Israel, most likely arson, and being celebrated across the anti-Semitic world with the hashtag IsraelIsBurning. I was going to write a post about it, but just days later a cataclysmic wildfire which, aided by winds topping 80mph, roared out of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and devastated parts of Sevier County, Tennessee. I am just now getting back around to the topic, in conjunction with my first trip back to visit my “office” since the public began to be allowed back into the area.

It turns out that this fire too was human-caused – by two juveniles who have since been arrested. It is unclear whether they were acting out of malice or simple irresponsibility, but 14 people are now confirmed dead and more than 1500 structures have burned in the 17,000 acre fire which is just now being contained. I will get back to the Gatlinburg fire below.

In Israel, the fires are being labeled acts of “political arson”, and “terrorism”. More than 60,000 people were forced to evacuate Haifa, Israel’s 3rd largest city.

From WashingtonPost:

Spreading quickly due to dry, windy weather, the fire raced through Haifa’s northern neighborhoods, sending panicked residents fleeing from the area.

While there were no serious injuries, several dozen people were hospitalized for smoke inhalation. In a rare move, Israel called up hundreds of military reservists to join overstretched police and firefighters and was making use of an international fleet of firefighting aircraft sent by a slew of countries.

The Haifa blaze was the most serious in a series of fires that have erupted across the country in recent days. On a visit to the area, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said anyone implicated in setting the fires would be punished severely.

“It’s a crime for all intents and purposes and in our opinion it is terror for all intents and purposes,” he said. He said incitement to arson was also playing a role in spreading the fires.

Netanyahu did not elaborate on the identity or motives of the suspected arsonists, but Israeli officials typically use the term “terror” to refer to Arab or Palestinian militant activity.

Israel has been on edge during more than a year of Palestinian attacks, mostly stabbings, that have tapered off, but not halted, in recent months. Netanyahu has blamed Palestinian incitement for fueling those attacks.

Fire is an interesting tactic. The Japanese used incendiary balloons to cause the the only casualties inflicted on the continental U.S. during WWII. Al Qaeda has repeatedly called for arson attacks in the American west, though to date none have been labeled acts of terror. We bring up the point in connection with spree-shootings, but the largest school massacre took place in Bath, Connecticut in 1927 and was carried out with bombs and other incendiary devices, not a gun.

Hoplophobes want to ban everything tool which can be misused. But there is always another tool to be misused. Joseph Farah writes about the situation in Israel:

Even before Israel became a nation in 1948, the region served as a kind of testing ground for terrorism against the Jews. Nothing has changed much since then – except that what Israel has experienced since before its miraculous rebirth after nearly 1,900 years has now spread worldwide.

  • First terrorists tried shooting up Israel. But the civilian population armed itself in defense. That put a virtual end to those kinds of attacks.
  • Then terrorists invented airline hijackings and bombings to terrorize Israelis. But the nation devised the most sophisticated and effective security measures ever devised to foil them. That put a virtual end to those kinds of attacks.
  • Terrorists from surrounding nearby Muslim strongholds tried to infiltrate Jewish cities for attacks. Israel walled them off. That put a virtual end to those kinds of attacks.
  • Terrorists then tried firing missiles into Israel. So, Israel put together an anti-missile system that shoots them down before they land. That put an end to those kinds of attacks.

Guess what…fire is a tool too. We depend on it to keep us warm and to cook our food. But it can be misused to deadly consequence.


My return to the Smokies:

My Office – The Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

For those of you who do not know, my “day-job” is owner of a flyfishing guide service in the Smoky Mountains. I spend upwards of 70 days a year in the Park, between guiding, family hiking trips, or personal fishing. It was tough to sit at home, 2 weeks ago as I write this, and watch Gatlinburg catch fire live on television. The public was only allowed into the affected areas this past Friday, and my wife and I took the kids into Gatlinburg and the Park on Sunday.

First sign of the fire, retardant on “The Spur” – US 441 between Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg.

It is striking how patchy the devastation is. There are hillsides that completely burned, structures and all, while only yards away something was untouched. We drove in and out of areas where fire had burned both sides of the road, before entering downtown Gatlinburg which was relatively unscathed. Meanwhile, just a block or two off the main drag, the fires had consumed everything.

The Welcome Center sign made the national media.

 

Downtown Gatlinburg was spared.

We stopped at The Donut Friar, a decades-old establishment that is a must-stop when in Gatlinburg. We then headed up the hill out back which leads to my wife’s family cemetery. More than 150 years of her family are buried there. Though she grew up in Toledo, OH, her East TN roots run deep.

My wife’s family cemetery. Fire had burned structures right up to the boundary.

 

The fires were stopped just yards shy of downtown on the opposite hillside.

I think at this point I need to mention that I did not go to photograph “disaster porn”. I know people who lost almost everything. The Lodge at Buckberry Creek, a place where I picked up countless clients, and whose owners I know well, is completely gone. So while I saw some of the worst I didn’t take a lot of pictures of burned out buildings, other than what is in the background of a shot like the ones above. It seems exploitative to share a burned out residential neighborhood.

Since the burning of Buckberry was on the news, and Buddy MacLean is interviewed, I feel ok sharing this:

 

Leaving Gatlinburg behind, we crossed the park boundary to be greeted by this sign. Mountain-Tough and Smokies-Strong have both become mantras to those affected.

We drove up towards Newfound Gap, past the Chimney Tops – the dual mountain-peak that was the point of origin for the fire.

Fire Trucks at Park Headquarters

 

Newfound Gap Road/ US 441

 

US 441

Chimneys Picnic Area

 

The Chimney Tops, origin point of the fire.

 

A better angle of the Chimney Tops. This is from the uphill side, the fire tore down the other side and into Gatlinburg.

 

The Gorge, my favorite section of GSMNP water, escaped

We stopped at where I lead clients down into The Gorge, my favorite section of GSMNP water to fish. Though it lay in the shadows of the Chimney Tops, the origin point of the fire, it looked more or less unscathed. It turns out that the fire raced down the peak, but stayed on the other side of the ridge from the riverbed until it finally crested and crossed about a mile downhill from the Gorge, just above the picnic area. It went by to the side essentially. While I understand the vital (and neglected/thwarted) role fire plays in rejuvenating the forest, I can’t say that I am disappointed to find that the Gorge escaped damage.

Spot-fires track down the hill towards Gatlinburg.

We continued up to the top of Newfound Gap, the North Carolina line. From this lofty perch the fires seemed far below, and it was difficult to make out the damaged areas. Fact is, the GSMNP is a half a million acres. 17,000 acres burned – a drop in the bucket.

Newfound Gap, GSMNP

Gatlinburg will rebuild. The Smokies will regrow.

 


 

I have been in contact with the ranger who oversees trail-crew volunteers, and will begin helping rebuild bridges in the backcountry and such when they begin that process. But for now writing about it a bit has been therapeutic.

Thank you all for allowing me that little tangent. If anyone would like to look at more pictures, I set my album on Facebook to “public”.

Discussion

3 responses to ‘Wildfire as a tool of terror (and my return to the Smokies)

  1. Great post. Its always shocking to see your local forest go up in smoke, especially so when you find that its started by some ars(onist)hole! The only good news I can offer is that nature gets busy fixing it all up way faster than you think. Give it a year or two and you’ll see a whole new side to this.

  2. Very true stuartb, drove through Yellowstone a couple of years after the big fires there to visit a friend in Cody. Greener than I had ever seen it and the elk and bison were fat and healthy.

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