Along the Pacific Crest and Continental Divide Trails, closures and fire bans are considered normal, especially after dry winters or late in the summer. Ditto for other long trails through arid or semi-arid environments like the Arizona Trail or Colorado Trail.
But I considered such trail closures impossible on the Appalachian Trail, which is nicknamed “The Green Tunnel” for its heavy tree canopy and which receives about 45 inches (115 cm) of precipitation per year along its 2,175-mile length.
Yet it’s happened. A client who I am helping prepare for an A.T. thru-hike in 2017 recently forwarded me an email from the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, informing him of two current trail closures and fire restrictions:
Please be advised that ~70 miles of A.T. are currently closed from US76 at Dicks Creek Gap near Hiwassee, GA, north to US74 at the Nantahala River in Wesser, NC, and as of this week all of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, including 71 miles of the A.T., is closed. These closures are all due to forest fires. The A.T. will not reopen until the US Forest Service or NPS says it is safe, and we have no current prediction when that might occur.
It is quite possible that some sections will still be closed when you begin your thru-hike, so you should be prepared to skip around closed A.T. sections.
Since the drought is predicted to continue into February, we expect that forest fire danger will continue for the foreseeable future. All campfires are banned from Amicalola Falls State Park north to Front Royal, Virginia; smoking is also highly discouraged; and there may be additional Trail closures, as there were this week. The use of commercially available portable lanterns, stoves, or heating equipment that utilize gas or pressurized liquid fuel is allowed. The stove must have an ON/OFF switch (no alcohol stoves, no hexamine or solid fuel cubes).
The forest fires are due to a historic drought and that also means that there is very little water available along the A.T. as most of the springs have dried up in GA, NC and TN.
I’m sure that these closures and fire bans come as no surprise to those in the Southeast, all of whom have experienced this drought first-hand and some of whom — like the residents of Gatlinburg — have been directly affected by these wildfires.
But the news is probably a bit of a wake-up call to the rest of us. A new norm? I hope not. #KeepTheATGreen
For more information about the wildfire in the Smokies, refer to The Smoky Mountain Hiking Blog. Some of the resources identified will have information about the wildfire further south, too.
Unfortunately it’s not the first time nor the last. I was in Shenandoah earlier this year and the entire southern section of the park was closed due to the Rocky Mount fire. That included 30-40 miles of the AT.
Two words: climate change. Those of us in the industry here in gatlinburg knew a disaster like this was coming. When the boreal rainforest in our high elevations recedes 3 miles in 15 years (as it has) we can tell you that this drought was something we all knew was coming.