By Berenice Tompkins
This past Thanksgiving, I visited family in Western North Carolina. My grandmother’s home is in Saluda, a tiny town close to the South Carolina border and a little ways east of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which straddles North Carolina and Tennessee. My great grandfather ran a camp in this area, and my dad and his brothers spent their summers there, exploring the green, wet Blue Ridge Mountains. I started traveling down alone to stay with my grandmother in the Saluda house when I was four, and her back porch, overlooking the mountains and some of the world’s greatest sunsets, remains one of my favorite places in the world.
For a good part of this visit, however, neither mountains nor sunset were visible. The smog extended to the trees lining my grandmother’s yard, about 100 feet in front of the porch. The air smelled half like a campfire and half like burning plastic, presumably from the manmade debris caught in over thirty wildfires that had been burning in North Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee for the past month. We first heard about them through a second cousin, a chef at a lodge that evacuated completely when the fire started pouring down the mountain directly across the lake. He also told us that much of Sevier County, Tennessee, childhood home of Dolly Parton and site of the amusement park Dollywood, had burned down.
What’s most worrying about these fires is that the Blue Ridge and Smoky Mountains area is a temperate rainforest – it’s known for being cool, damp and rainy even in the summer months. The fires followed two months without rain and a year of drought, as well as the third warmest October since 1963 and second warmest January-October period in the last 122 years, according to the NOAA. It’s believed that the majority of the fires were manmade – it can be easy for a hiker to drop a cigarette and start a huge blaze when conditions are this dry. The Sevier County fire, which was reportedly started by teenagers, killed fourteen people, injured 191, damaged or destroyed over two thousand structures and forced over 14,000 people to evacuate. The mayor of Gatlinburg referred to it as a “fire for the history books.”
Our area of North Carolina was not impacted as drastically, but the fires severely affected air quality. When the wind blew the smoke toward the house, the air smelled so toxic we had to keep all the windows closed. Each morning I coughed up globs of yellow gunk. We weren’t even in the towns closest to the large fires, where it must have been very difficult to breathe. Since we couldn’t be outside on several days, I took the opportunity to do some Climate Stories Project reporting and talk to friends about what was going on.
I interviewed Chris Price, a family friend, homestead farmer and naturalist, about his experience of the wildfires, as well as other ways he’s observing climate change in the area and on his farm. Listen to Chris’ story below. I also spoke with my friend Steven Norris, a climate justice organizer, who reminded me of what had been happening on the other side of the state – while western North Carolina was crying out for water, the eastern coast was being drenched by Hurricane Matthew. In addition to organizing to support for communities affected by Matthew, Steve is also organizing to stop a piece of natural gas infrastructure bound to exacerbate climate catastrophes like these ones – the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. Steve recently helped organize the Walk to Protect Our People and the places We Live, a along the proposed route of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. I’ll be posting his interview soon, including a reflection on that experience.
Update: The Southern Appalachian wildfires aren’t the only ones wreaking destruction around the world this year. Read here about the wildfires currently afflicting Chile.