2016 SIGNIFICANT AREA WILDFIRES
› Chattahoochee National Forest: The Rough Ridge fire, started by lightning in mid-October, burned close to 30,000 acres in the Cohutta Wilderness area of North Georgia.
› Cherokee National Forest: Several fires combined to cover more than 1,000 acres in Polk and Monroe counties in Tennessee during November.
› Hamilton County: Three wildfires along Waldens Ridge burned more than 2,000 combined acres and contributed to a smoke blanket that enveloped Chattanooga on certain November days.
› Dade County, Ga.: The Fox Mountain, Tatum Gulf and Sulfur Springs fires combined to burn more than 4,000 acres.
› Whitfield County, Ga.: The Rocky Face fire covered roughly 600 acres.
› Other: By the middle of November, dozens of fires burned across counties in southeast Tennessee. These were the counties most-affected on Nov. 16:
Bledsoe County: Four fires, 2,047 acres
Hamilton County: Four fires, 1,847 acres
Marion County: Five fires, 1,025 acres
Sequatchie County: Five fires, 1,056 acres
Source: Tennessee Division of Forestry, newspaper archives
More fire is on its way to area forests just months after rain extinguished the last embers of a historic and costly wildfire season.
Authorities will have more say in where it starts and how it spreads this time.
Officials with the Cherokee and Chattahoochee National Forests plan to continue their annual prescribed burn programs in the coming weeks, even after they watched fires started by lightning or arson burn through thousands of wooded acres in the latter half of 2016.
"We'll do it cautiously to start with," said Jeff Gardner, Conasauga district manager of the Chattahoochee National Forest. "We're looking at starting off with a smaller burn size, at least at first. We're still in a drought, but the severity has dropped."
Prescribed burns are a regular part of most forest management strategies. The controlled fires benefit plant and wildlife while reducing fuel sources for wildfires to feed on.
Their merit was seen last fall when hundreds of firefighters from around the country converged on North Georgia to fight the Rough Ridge wildfire in the Cohutta Wilderness. The blaze was the nation's largest at the time, covering close to 30,000 acres.
Gardner said the Rough Ridge fire could have been even bigger if not for previous prescribed burns.
"That's one thing we did notice with the wilderness fire," he said, "is that once the fire came out of the wilderness, it came to places where we have a prescribed burn history and the fire intensity decreased."
Gardner's district contains close to 160,000 acres, more than five times the amount affected by the Rough Ridge fire. That includes a large tract west of Interstate 75, where this year's first prescribed burns are scheduled to begin in the next several weeks. Gardner said 7,800 acres will be included in this year's prescribed burns.
Officials in East Tennessee's Cherokee National Forest are planning a prescribed burn for close to 20,000 of the forest's 650,000 acres this spring, after fires there burned hundreds of acres in the fall.
"To many people, the word 'fire' creates visions of great devastation and waste," said a news release from the forest's Cleveland office. "While this concept can be true of wildfires, it is the opposite with prescribed fires. The term 'prescribed fire' means exactly what it implies. It is a recommended treatment for a specific area."
Foresters are preparing to deal with a shorter than usual burning window, however, because of warm temperatures that are keeping plants green.
Shannon Gann, area forester for the state's Division of Forestry, oversees a team that executes prescribed burns for private landowners in the state's southeast region. Her crew will head into the abbreviated prescribed burn season understaffed, after several seasonal forestry technicians and bulldozer operators decided to get out of the business following the exhausting wildfire season.
"It's hard to find people in Chattanooga and Hamilton County who are willing to be on call," Gann said. "There are a lot of other jobs in the area that pay well and aren't as stressful."
The staffing issues, shortened burn season and the recent wildfires are not reducing demand for the division's services, though.
"We've still got the same landowners that call just about every year," Gann said. "The only thing that's different this year is that it's not gotten cold. The fescue has not gotten cold, so unless we get some more cold weather, it's going to shorten the window that we have."
Contact staff writer David Cobb at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6249.