This aerial photo shows destroyed homes, many burned down to the foundation, the day after a wildfire that hit Gatlinburg, Tenn., Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2016. (Paul Efird/Knoxville News Sentinel via AP)
When flames ripped through the Great Smoky Mountains and engulfed hotels and houses in and around Gatlinburg, it caught many people by surprise.
But a professor at the University of Tennessee saw it coming. He's been predicting that a devastating wildfire could hit the area for 10 years.
Henri D. Grissino-Mayer, a professor of geography and expert on forest wildfires, began giving a talk called "Will Our Great Smoky Mountains One Day Go Up in Flames?" Some listeners have rolled their eyes during the talk, he said, but he always saw it as a matter of probability.
The lush mountain setting that makes Gatlinburg a tourist haven also makes it prone for wildfires: It is surrounded by trees and leaves that fuel wildfires after they start.
"Gatlinburg is a town made of things that burn," said Grissino-Mayer, who teaches a course at UT on natural hazards. "It was just a matter of time. We don't want to see the things happen, but they're bound to happen. They have to happen."
Grissino-Mayer said firefighters would likely have to depend on favorable weather conditions, like high humidity and rain, to extinguish the flames.
"This is going to be tough to put out," he said. "We often don't win the war against wildfire. We hope that favorable weather will return to help us put out the fire."
Moving forward, Grissino-Mayer said, people in East Tennessee should think hard about where and how to rebuild. He cautioned that wildfires are a natural part of the life cycle in lush forest environments like the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
"It always takes a tragedy to alert people that we need to rethink things," he said. "If we don't manage the forests for wildfire, nature will."
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