UT professor using award money to warn of wildfires

April 10, 2017: The UT professor who predicted the devastating Sevier County wildfires has won an award that he says will allow him to raise awareness about the danger of wildfires.

The University of Tennessee professor who predicted the devastating Sevier County wildfires of late last year has won an award.

The university has named Henri Grissino-Mayer a James R. Cox professor, and with that comes $25,500 over the course of three years.

He said he plans on using that money to raise awareness of the dangers of wildfires.

You probably know from school growing up that trees have rings, one for each year of life. The study of those rings is called dendrochronology, and that's what Grissino-Mayer used to predict the deadly Sevier County wildfires.

It's also what makes him confident more wildfires are to come.

RELATED: UT professor urges changes before next wildfire

Grissino-Mayer has been a professor of geography at the University of Tennessee since 2000.

He had said the Great Smoky Mountains National Park was overdue for a major wildfire.

"Any natural hazard - I don't care if it's hurricanes or earthquakes or whatever - they work in cycles," he said.

Then came Nov. 28, 2016, when a wildfire in the park swept into Gatlinburg and surrounding communities, killing 14 people and damaging or destroying nearly 2,500 buildings.

"Not only do we want to prevent another Gatlinburg from happening, but we need to raise a level of awareness among the people, the policy-makers, the decision-makers," Grissino-Mayer said. "We need to raise an awareness of what wildfire has done in the past and what it can do in the future."

That's Grissino-Mayer's mission - one he is now further empowered to pursue, with UT naming him a James R. Cox professor and awarding him the $25,500 over three years.

"It's going to allow me to do a lot more traveling and to get out and get the word out about the need for awareness," he said. "I've been doing a lot of traveling. Some of it's come out of my own pocket, but hopefully now it won't need to be."

He said if his research isn't helping people protect themselves against another fire, then he's doing the public a disservice.

"People need to think about the homes they live in, the yards they maintain, the shrubbery, the trees on their property, the amount of fuels, what their houses are made out of," he said.

His research shows Sevier County is due for another fire in the near future, and he wants people to be prepared.

"Fire is beneficial for forests, which means that fire needs to come back to forests, which means that fire will have to come back to the forest in and around Sevier County," Grissino-Mayer said. "My greatest fear is that the next fire that does occur in Sevier County will occur much too close to Pigeon Forge."

So what can be done?

Grissino-Mayer said people -- especially those rebuilding their homes right now -- should look to FEMA's construction guide for building in wildfire zones. That is available online for free HERE. (Individual fact sheets from that publication can be found HERE.)

The International Code Council also has a special guide specifically for building in communities that border fire-prone forests. Cities, counties and other jurisdictions across the country have adopted this code.

© 2017 WBIR.COM


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