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KNOXVILLE – A University of Tennessee tree expert said Monday that the wildfires that have devastated forests in the western United States could happen here in the Southeast.

Dr. Henri Grissino-Mayer is an expert in dendrochronology, which is the study of wood by analyzing tree rings. He said some people are wrong if they think the forests of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park are too humid to burn.

“There is no such thing as a flame-proof ecosystem. Every type of forest can burn,” Grissino-Mayer said. “It’s not a matter of ‘if,’ it’s a matter of ‘when’ a similar situation happens in the southern Appalachian Mountains.”

Grissino-Mayer said using the science of dendrochronology shows that forest fires were much more common in the past.

Dr. Henri Grissino-Mayer

“We’ve collected a few trees with the scars of past forest fires, and they show that fires occurred with regularity, every ten years or so, until the beginning of fire suppression in the 1930s,” Grissino-Mayer said. “There have been very few fires in the Smokies since 1934, and that accumulation of fuel over the years may increase the chances for a large fire in the future.”

The National Park Service began actively suppressing fires in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in the 1930s, and although it now starts a small number of prescribed fires each year, Grissino-Mayer said, the Park Service is struggling with the needs of the forests and the desires of tourists.

“They know they need fires in their parks. Fires are a natural part of those forests. Species of trees have evolved with fire over many years,” Grissino-Mayer said. “Unfortunately, how do you strike a balance between what the public wants to see and what the forest really requires? Tourists don’t want to see dead trees, they want to see a green forest.”