Fire at the Forest Resources AgResearch and Education Center
Recent wildfires burned almost 1,000 acres at the UT Forest Resources AgResearch and Education Center (FRREC). Fire first reached UT property on November 14 on the North Tract of the Cumberland Forest Unit. On November 23, a separate fire hit the Unit’s South Tract. Welcomed rains, which Center Director Kevin Hoyt called a “God send” finally extinguished the flames five days later.
We were fortunate that no FRREC personnel were injured in the fires and no structures were lost. We were also fortunate to have extremely capable staff who worked tirelessly to assist fire crews and prevent additional damages. Here is their story.
NORTH TRACT FIRE November 14 – November 22
Martin Schubert, manager of the Cumberland Forest Unit, had been closely monitoring the White Oak Circle Fires in Morgan County. He had spent the weekend following fire crews’ radio traffic, and on Monday, November 14, he and Ed Yost, a FRREC research technician, set out to assess how close the flames were to the forest’s property line.
What they found was an active fire that had jumped over control lines onto the North Tract.
“At that point I knew there was not much we could do except keep it from going up the mountain,” says Schubert.
Schubert and Yost alerted personnel with the Tennessee Division of Forestry, and then constructed a handline that held the blazes until firefighters could get equipment over the poor roads and mountainous terrain in this very remote area.
Unfortunately, containment was lost two days later. It is suspected that arsonists reset the fires, but those allegations have not been confirmed officially. To get the fire fully contained required nine days of continuous work under challenging and stressful conditions.
“In this type of fire, falling trees are the biggest threat, and every fifteen minutes or so you could hear a big tree falling,” says Schubert. “It sounded like a thunderclap, so your head was always on a swivel.”
The North Tract fire impacted 492 acres of FRREC and a total of 3,200 acres of land near the Cumberland Forest Unit. Hoyt praises Schubert and Yost for potentially saving 400 acres of UT property plus many more acres of adjacent property.
“If not for the quick thinking and work of Martin Schubert and Ed Yost, the fire damage here could have been so much worse,” says Hoyt.
SOUTH TRACT FIRE November 23 – November 28
The Wednesday afternoon before Thanksgiving, when many UTIA employees had already left work to enjoy a long holiday, Schubert received a call that fire had reached the South Tract. He and other FRREC personnel spent their break working eighteen-nineteen hour days alongside TDF firefighters to contain the blaze.
The fire on the South Tract scorched another 489 acres and threatened twenty structures, including some residences. Fortunately fire crews were able to protect all of the buildings.
First responders identified multiple points of origin for the South Tract blaze. According to Schubert, during aerial fire suppression a helicopter pilot estimated at least five different sets. This points strongly to arson.
“It just infuriates us,” says Schubert. “They have no regard for the people and property they’re putting in danger.”
After working for days to contain the fires, crews were disheartened to discover two additional fires burning just outside of control lines on Monday, November 28. Again, arson is strongly suspected. Strong wind gusts fanned the newly set flames, creating dangerous conditions.
“We were so fortunate to get the rain when we did that Monday evening,” says Hoyt. “It was truly a God send.” The three to five inches of precipitation that fell over the following days essentially extinguished the flames.
FRREC personnel had strong praise for the Tennessee Division of Forestry, especially the Union County Division, for their steadfast efforts.
Now that the fires on FRREC have been doused, assisting in an arson investigation will be the next step, along with damage assessment. Hoyt suspects the fires have left scars on trees that will impact their quality and value. He also has concerns about soil conditions, the acorn crop and wildlife. Then there is non-fire related damage created by this year’s relentless drought.
“When you consider the drought and the fires, we’re probably looking at a fifty-year event,” says Hoyt. “Now we will have to see how the forest responds to the fire as well as the drought.
“There are multiple research questions that we will have the opportunity to examine,” says Schubert, “which makes this situation a little easier to digest.”
It appears that many southeastern landowners will be faced with managing fire-damaged and drought-stricken forests. Since late October, wildfires have burned more than 100,000 acres across seven states. The drought areas extend from Virginia to Oklahoma.
What were a perilous two weeks at the Cumberland Forest Unit may eventually provide answers to these landowners.
“It’s part of the job,” says Schubert. “It’s why we’re here.”