Smoky conditions likely will be found around Cataloochee in Great Smoky Mountains National Park over the next few weeks as park crews work on burning through 400 acres of landscape.
The prescribed burns, in the Canadian Top unit adjacent to Cataloochee Valley in North Carolina, could begin as soon as Monday, weather permitting, and continue off and on through early November.
The two burn units are located on Bald Top adjacent to Mathews Branch near the Cataloochee Ranger Station. The units are part of the larger Canadian Top multi-year prescribed fire project, where fire managers have been conducting a series of low-intensity, controlled burns to restore the composition and open structure of the oak woodlands that occur on upper slopes and ridges within the site. These fire and drought-tolerant natural communities are important to wildlife and overall ecosystem health which are in decline throughout the Southern Appalachian region.
"One of the goals of the prescribed burn is to improve elk forage and habitat," said Shane Paxton, who leads the park's Wildland Fire Module. “This series of burns will reduce the number of fire-sensitive trees and shrubs while increasing the regeneration of oak and yellow pines along with increasing the cover and diversity of native grasses and wildflowers. Over time, this increase in herbaceous vegetation on the forest floor will improve forage for elk which graze the nearby meadows.”
Roads and trails will remain open to the public throughout the burn operations, although Little Cataloochee Trail may be temporarily closed if fire activity warrants. Visitors should expect to see smoke in the area.
The burn operations will be conducted by park staff and are being funded by the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation.