A spate of wildfires raging in wildlands and National Forests across western North Carolina, northern Georgia and northern Alabama are threatening quality fly fishing resources, including a river listed by Trout Unlimited as one of the 100 Best Streams in America. The causes of almost all but one of these blazes are now being attributed to being man-made, or currently under investigation.
Beginning in early November, several wildfires started in the wilderness of extreme western North Carolina, affecting forests and watersheds that are crucial habitat for both fish and wildlife. The region enjoys a robust tourism economy, and the effects are potentially devastating.
As reported in the Asheville Citizen-Times, concerning evidence has come to light as to the cause of the blazes.
"The majority we believe to be started by arson." said Cathy Dowd, spokesperson for the U.S. Forest Service in Asheville. "Some signs of arson are the presence of accelerants, something used to start a fire quickly. Another sign is the absence of a fire ring. With a campfire, you will see a fire ring."
The Nantahala National Forest, the largest wilderness area in the region, has been subject to emergency closures. WSPA.com out of Greenville cited Forest Service officials taking immediate action.
"The area closures we have put in place are critical to firefighting efforts to ensure the safety of both the public and our firefighters," James Melonas, Deputy Forest Supervisor for National Forests in North Carolina explains. "We will be working with our fire managers to assess the situation on a daily basis to reopen these areas as soon as possible."
The Nantahala River is potentially affected with both immediate and future concerns. Known worldwide as a kayaking and whitewater destination, the river is also considered on of the premier trout fisheries in the southeast. The Natahala Outdoor Center, a long-standing wilderness education organization, saw their headquarters threatened by the fire, with staff evacuations. As of this writing, the property was still intact.
Wildfires are devastating events, even when they are the result of natural causes. Stream ecologies in particular are subject to major disruption due to influx of ash and hydrocarbons that are toxic to both fish and insects. That the current situation may have been created by deliberate acts is tragic and should be responded to with the strongest measures possible.