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Crews conduct prescribed burns in Cades Cove using drones for the first time

Starting Tuesday, Nov. 1, the park said it would conduct burns to safely reduce fuel, restore meadow habitats and maintain the landscape of Cades Cove.

Great Smoky Mountains Natl. Park — The Great Smoky Mountain National Park and Appalachian Piedmont Coastal Fire Management Zone staff plan to burn approximately 1,200 acres of fields in Cades Cove.

Burn operations started Tuesday, Nov. 1, and will go through Tuesday, Nov. 22, depending on conditions. These controlled burns help preserve native herbaceous species that provide high-quality cover and foraging opportunities for wildlife including deer, turkeys and ground-nesting birds, said GSMNP. 

"Appalachian Piedmont Coastal Zone Fire staff are excited to lead prescribed burn operations in Cades Cove this year to meet field restoration goals in the Smokies," said Fire Management Officer Brian Tonihka. "Notably, we will use Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) in ignition operations for the burns. This new technology provides a great opportunity to improve efficiency and operational safety."  

Over the last 20 years, park managers have conducted burns during the spring and fall to safely reduce fuel, restore meadow habitats and maintain the historic landscape of Cades Cove, according to GSMNP. 

Park staff will closely monitor fire weather conditions, including vegetation and soil moisture, wind speed and direction, temperature, and relative humidity, to ensure that conditions meet the burn plan objectives for the site. 

Visitors should expect to see firefighters and equipment along Sparks Lane, Hyatt Lane and the Cades Cove Loop Road. The closure of Sparks Lane and the access road and trailhead for the Abrams Falls Trail may be necessary during certain operational periods, said GSMNP.

The loop road and structures will remain open to visitor use, but brief delays and temporary closures may occur to ensure public safety during burn operations, GSMNP said. 

On Thursday, November 3, crews started fires near Abrams Falls Trail Head. They successfully completed the fire as weather permitted, using an Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS). The system costs $50,000. 

"It helps spot fires using the camera system. Document where the fire is going and what it is doing,” said Jordan Black, the UAS Control Pilot over the operation. 

 Black said the device also started fires in spots that were hard to access on foot.

"We can do ariel ignition and start fires, moving the fire along." 

The crew plans to burn the following units:

  • Cable House, 97 acres
  • Cemetery Marsh, 291 acres
  • Tipton Oliver, 257 acres
  • Maple Branch, 377 acres
  • Sparks, 164 acres
  • Martha's Branch, 17 acres
Credit: Great Smoky Mountain National Park

Visitors should also expect to see fire activity and smoke during burn operations. Fire managers ask that motorists reduce speed in work zones, but refrain from stopping in the roadways, GSMNP said. If smoke is present, motorists should roll up windows and turn on headlights. 

For more information on the use of prescribed burns in the Smokies, you can visit the park website at www.nps.gov/grsm/learn/nature/wildlandfire.

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