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Fire Threats

Urban Fire

An urban fire is any instance of uncontrolled burning which results in major structural damage to residential, commercial, industrial, institutional or other properties in developed areas. Often, urban fires result from other catastrophes and become a part of the cascading emergencies created by the larger or initial emergency. On the same day as the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, October 8th, a fire in Peshtigo, Wisconsin burned out of control and spread over the entire town. The area became a conflagration when a windstorm fueled by the spread of several prairie fires fanned the blaze out over a million acres of forest. This fire leaped across the Peshtigo River and trapped both sides of the town of Peshtigo in terrific flames. When the inferno burned out, it had left roughly 1,200 dead. Although the Great San Francisco earthquake is best known for its 7.7 to 7.9 magnitude trembler, the real culprit on April 18, 1906 was an urban fire that caused the wooden city to burn for four days. The earthquake broke natural gas mains and water mains, not only causing blazes everywhere, but preventing the fire department from fighting the fires. A firestorm took out more than 500 city blocks, and 3,000 lives were lost. Of those who survived, some 225,000 people were without a home. 

Forest Fire

Forest fire is still a common occurrence in Tennessee, mostly in the heavily forested East Tennessee area. Forest fire threats are typically combined with other hazards, such as droughts or thunderstorms. Each year a fire may involve areas that were once undeveloped timberland, but that are becoming a part of urban sprawl, the suburbs of expanding cities. Making the threat greater, many homes are built in the forests which are often more distant from fire services and utilities.

Forest fires do not commonly represent a major threat to most of Tennessee. There are occasions, however, where wildfires do get out of control, and you will find links to information about these fires from the state Division of Forestry. Additionally, Tennessee is home to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the Cherokee National Forest, both of which are highly forested and are subject to significant fires. The greatest threat occurs when several fires appear causing the absorption of response forces to meet new fire problems.

The Forestry Division of the Tennessee Department of Agriculture is the first line of defense in fighting forest fires and usually eliminates the threats with little additional assistance.

Forestry maintains the Burn Safe TN website to provide information on wildfire prevention and current fire conditions in the state.


Wildfires are typically limited to fields and meadows in Tennessee and require a rapid response to prevent them from developing into a forest fire. The last major outbreak of wildfire in Tennessee was in 1952 when a serious drought set up conditions for fires which exceeded the resources to fight so many fires at the same time. Thousands of acres of Tennessee timber land and meadows were burning at the same time, a stretch of fires from Memphis to Strawberry Plains. All of these fires were finally subdued only as rain began to fall because the number of resources to fight some many fires had long been depleted.

Losses totaled in the millions due to lost crops, timber and businesses.

A cooperative network of emergency management between the states, known as the Emergency Management Assistance Compact (EMAC), now helps assure rapid resources can be obtained to address wildfires in the future.