It has been four years since the devastating 2016 wildfire season that left an indelible impact on much of East Tennessee. The deadly Chimney Tops Fire that began in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park near Gatlinburg and eventually spread into Gatlinburg was the most famous example, and the damage from the fire can still be seen simply by driving along the parkway through downtown Gatlinburg and looking at the mountains that tower over the town. But there were plenty of others with long-lasting impacts, like the fire that charred the area around the Devils Racetrack on the North Cumberland Wildlife Management Area near Caryville, and, closer to home, the Chimney Rocks Fire that burned several thousand acres of the Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area.
On the rim of the gorge encasing the Big South Fork River, just above the Station Camp crossing (as the crow flies), is a feature called “The Leaners.” Essentially, this is a rock formation where years of erosion left pieces of the sandstone cap rock exposed and jutting out above the ridge-top surrounding it, creating a maze of free-standing rocks pockmarked with natural passageways of varying sizes.
The Leaners is easily a Top 10 landform (in my book, at least) in a national park that is jam-packed with spectacular landforms. I used to visit the rock formation every year about this time — around Labor Day, when pawpaws are ripe and ready to be harvested. There was a reason for my visit: On the east edge of The Leaners was a pawpaw tree. It was a bit unusual; pawpaws are usually found near water — 500 ft. below, along the riverbank, not up here, on the edge of the plateau. But there it was, and the novelty of it made it an enticing visit.
Pawpaws were an important native fruit for our Appalachian ancestors. A soft fruit with tropical qualities, chilled pawpaws were said to be George Washington’s favorite dessert, and Thomas Jefferson had a grove of pawpaw trees planted at his Monticello estate. Their fragile nature make them unsuitable for commercial marketing, so most people have never gotten to experience the unique taste of a pawpaw fruit. But they’re good — as long as you take care to not eat the seeds, which contain toxins.
Sunday afternoon marked my first trip to The Leaners since the Chimney Rocks Fire. It never occurred to me that the area may have been damaged by the fire, until I was making the drive down Station Camp Road. Then it dawned on me that, in fact, the fire had probably scorched the forest around the rock formation, because it was within the containment zone that was established by National Park Service firefighters.
Most wildfires in this part of the country quickly burn themselves out, or are quickly contained. They usually burn only the available fuel (leaf matter and dead trees) in the understory, their flames seldom crowning and creating the sort of raging infernos that can easily claim lives and property, like we see on an annual basis in the western U.S.
But 2016 was far from a typical year — as the Gatlinburg fire showed us. Like so many of the other fires in East Tennessee that year, including the one at Chimney Tops and the Devils Racetrack, the Chimney Rocks fire in the Big South Fork destroyed large stands of mature timber, either because the flames crowned, or because they burned hot enough and long enough to kill the trees at their base.
Old Station Road, the original road that transported horses and buggies — and, later, automobiles — from the top of the plateau into the river gorge and the Station Camp community along the river itself, was used by the National Park Service firefighters as a firebreak. It had been decades since the roadbed had seen vehicular traffic, but was used by local horseback riders as a shortcut to get from the Station Camp Trailhead to the river crossing. Firefighters used a dozer to build a containment line along the roadbed, which traverses the ridge-tops south of the modern road before entering the gorge along its eastern escarpment.
There is no equestrian traffic on Old Station Road these days. Following its use as a containment line for the Chimney Rocks Fire, the National Park Service gated the roadbed on either end to prevent access by trail riders. As the forest canopy has died out since the fire, the unshaded roadbed has become a wild tangle of weeds in places; in other places, it’s covered in grasses (as seen above). It’s still usable as a footpath, despite the many fallen trees that block the route, but that will change in the years ahead as nature continues to take its course.
I had seen the impacts of the Chimney Rocks Fire from vehicle on my many trips along Station Camp Road in the past four years, but that didn’t necessarily prepare me for what I saw as I strolled along the edge of the fire containment zone. The roadbed, used as a firebreak, offered a sharp contrast for the forest surrounding it. The forests on its east and south sides were as they’ve always been: deep and lush, a mix of the oaks and pines that are typical of the upland forests within the Big South Fork region, their understory comprised of stands of laurel and berry bushes like huckleberry and blueberry. The forests on its north and west sides more closely resembled the clear-cuts I’m accustomed to in my old stomping grounds of the Cumberland Mountains, devoid of much of the mature timber that once covered the ridge tops.
I’m used to seeing wildfires wipe out the forest understory; I’m not used to seeing them take the forest canopy, as well. But by the time the Chimney Rocks Fire began in 2016, we were well into the worst drought this region had seen in a decade. The forests were tinderboxes, where wildfires could burn fast and hot. And the rugged terrain hampered efforts to combat the fire at Station Camp. Air support was utilized to some extent, but for the most part firefighters were forced to build a containment line, set backfires, and then let the fire simply burn itself out. It was the best approach to prevent the fire from scorching even more territory than it did, but the collateral damage within the containment zone was substantial.
Even as the Big South Fork NRRA — established by Congress in 1974, its lands acquired and facilities constructed by the Army Corps of Engineers over the next decade-plus — continues to recover from years of mining and timber-cutting that depleted most of its natural resources, there have been several events of the past generation that have helped shape this geologically-rich and biologically-diverse wilderness area.
The first was the major — and completely unpredicted — winter storm of February 1998, when nearly 20 inches of wet, heavy snow accumulated after a phenomenon known as dynamic cooling caused what was expected to be more than an inch of rain into an extremely damaging snowstorm. It was the most damaging winter storm in the history of the northern Cumberland Plateau, taking out virtually every power line and blocking every roadway in the region. Within the Big South Fork, it toppled countless shortleaf pines and caused extensive tree damage in other species, as well.
Less than 18 months later, the Southern pine beetle infestation was well underway in the region, killing all of the mature loblolly pines that hadn’t been taken out by the previous year’s winter storm. Together, the winter storm and the pine beetle created impenetrable thickets on many of the ridge tops within the BSF that hamper free movement within the backcountry to this very day, more than two decades later. Most of the backcountry roads that remained open outside the gorge, up until that point, were rendered impassible by the deadfall and were never reopened. The result, on most ridge tops where trails haven’t been cleared, is huge thickets where pine forests once dominated, tangles of mountain laurel with jumbled, rotting pine logs littering the forest floor, that can be as dangerous as they are inconvenient. Most hikers never leave the trails to experience these thickets, but hunters and off-trail wanderers will be quick to tell you that they’re enough to make preachers cuss, and that there are places where even black bears and wild hogs won’t venture.
More recently, the hemlock woolly adelgid infestation began. It continues to this day and, except for areas around trails and points of interest that are being protected by NPS botanists, this event is also transforming the forests in an extremely unfortunate way.
And, then, in 2016, the Chimney Rocks Fire fundamentally changed the forest as far as it could reach, completely wiping out the understory and killing much of the mature timber, as well. What has resulted as the dead trees have begun to fall and the new growth has created a tangle of unforgiving briars and brambles are impenetrable thickets much the same as those created by the events of 1998 and 1999, except on a broader scale within the impacted area.
About halfway along the 1.6-mile length of Old Station Road between Station Camp Road and where it turns down the steep escarpment of the river gorge, the roadbed dips into a drainage and crosses a small stream. As the elevation drops, the damage caused by the fire becomes less evident. In fact, with four years of new leaf litter covering the forest floor, the forest looks largely unchanged, except for an occasional charred stump. The fire burned through the forest understory here, but didn’t impact the canopy. If not for the mountain laurel — it still grows lush and green on the south side of the firebreak; it is dead and resembles tangled wooden skeletons on the north side — the fire’s impact would hardly be visible at all.
As the road dips further into the drainage, the fire damage becomes less obvious. Within a few years, it won’t be visible at all. And one hopes that the stream below served as a natural firebreak; that there wasn’t enough wind or that the fire wasn’t hot enough to jump the branch and continue burning on the opposite side.
But then, as the early evening sun beats down, a south-facing slope comes into view, like a hiker who is venturing upon a clear-cut area in a mountain forest. This is where the hottest part of the fire swept through the landscape as it burned from north to south four years ago.
Old Station Road climbs back to the top of the plateau, passing beneath a bluff wall that was once a beautiful, lush opening filled with ferns but is now a thorny, charred mess.
As Old Station Road nears the eastern rim of the river gorge, the roadbed disappears into a wild growth of weeds and tangles. It is here that the Chimney Rocks Fire broke containment, leaping across the firebreak and continuing south the ridge tops that stand sentry over the river below.
As I left the roadway and wandered beneath the first bluff line that signifies the rim of the gorge, I notice that the fire damage is far less apparent off the ridge tops than it is on it. For whatever reason, the fire didn’t burn as hot at these lower elevations. That gives me hope that The Leaners might have been spared. They’re technically still on the ridge top, but separated from the main ridge by a bluff line; they’re at the same elevation that I’m standing now. Besides, I’m reminded that even if the fire burned right up to the edge of the bluff above, the breaks in the rock might have served as a natural firebreak and spared the trees on top of the freestanding rocks.
Then I round a bend in the bluff, The Leaners come into view, and it’s immediately apparent that the fire didn’t spare this incredible landform, after all.
I’m not sure what I expected, but I sure didn’t expect what I saw. The Leaners were still there, of course; rocks don’t just melt from the heat of fire. But the landform is fundamentally, characteristically changed. Before, this was a maze of rocks that was shaded by hemlocks growing inside the maze and the mixed oak forest that grew atop the massive, free-standing sandstone. Those trees are almost entirely gone. In the absence of the shade that the forest canopy once provided, new growth is prevalent. The forest floor inside The Leaners was once open and clean; now it is being taken over by weeds and brambles and thorny thickets.
I can name on one hand the places within the Big South Fork that I enjoy exploring as much as The Leaners. So I was almost physically sick when I discovered how much the fire had changed this point overlooking the river gorge below.
And the pawpaw tree, where I used to race to beat the raccoons and bears for the tender fruit that it produced around the end of August or the first of September each year, was gone, of course. It fell victim to the fire like so many of the other trees that once grew in these woods.
Nature is resilient, of course. The forests have already begun to regrow, which is why the thorny and weedy tangles exist. Just outside The Leaners is a young bigleaf magnolia — the tree with the largest leaf and largest flower of any tree in North America, and found only in the Big South Fork and limited other areas in the Southeast and parts of Mexico. There’s also a massive hemlock and massive white oak growing side-by-side on the edge of the deeper forest where the fire didn’t impact the canopy. These trees somehow managed to escape the timber-cutters saws in the early 20th century, and also escaped the Chimney Rocks Fire in 2016.
On the ground, small, newly-fallen acorns are scattered about from the oak tree that towers overhead. Some of these acorns will take root, become seedlings, and grow into oak trees that will help replenish the forest as it continues to regrow and reshape in the aftermath of the fire.
At some point, years from now, The Leaners will look exactly as they did when I last visited them in 2016, just weeks before the destructive wildfire. The rocks will be shaded by massive stands of timber that grow overhead, the hemlocks that benefit from their shade will grow between them, and the areas between the rocks will more closely resemble a picnic area than a wild thicket.
But that change will take decades, and won’t be completed until well after I’ve left this earth — and perhaps my kids, as well.
As for the pawpaw tree that once drew me here, the renegade tree so out of place away from the groves of his brethren that grow along the swampy and marshy bottomland areas, will a passing bird or bear ever drop another seed here that grows into a fruit-producing pawpaw much like the ones once enjoyed by George Washington and Thomas Jefferson?
The odds are against it. But the new forest that results from the Chimney Rocks Fire will hold its own secrets that await discovery. Maybe someday my grandkids will happen through here and wonder — much like I did the first time I was here — if they’re the first person to ever step foot on this place.