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Devastating Forest Fires Likely to be Repeated

The fast-moving, wind-whipped blazes that burned more than 150,000 acres, killed 14 people, and damaged 2,400 structures in the Smoky Mountains in Tennessee last year may be a portent of things to come, warns Professor of Forest Ecology and Physiology Marc Abrams.

"Fire has played an important role historically in the forest ecosystem in the eastern United States, but the balance created by frequent--but not catastrophic--forest fires was upset by the Smokey Bear fire suppression regimen beginning in the late 1940s," he says. "Now, eastern forests, when faced with prolonged drought, are more vulnerable to hotter-burning, terribly destructive wildfires."

The southeastern United States is in a decades-long drought, Abrams points out, noting that some climate change models suggest extremely dry weather trends will continue. If so, more devastating fires like the recent Tennessee blazes are likely to occur. In a paper published in January, Abrams argues that human activities, such as land use and fire suppression, have been more influential than climate change in changing the composition of eastern forests.

--Jeff Mulhollem