On the afternoon of November 3rd, 2016 some as of yet unknown individual either intentionally or carelessly caused a small fire to begin burning along the Tellico Road just east of Tellico Gap. The timing could not have been worse. Over the prior two months little if any rain had fallen on the mountains of western North Carolina and the forests were tinderboxes. Initially the fire expanded slowly, growing to only around 110 acres by the following day. By the 5th though it grew five-fold to nearly 600 acres and by the 7th it had charred nearly 2,000 and threatened one of the more beloved landmarks in the area...Wesser Bald and its venerable lookout tower. For the next month the Tellico Fire, as it was now called, expanded north and west. It quickly passed over Wesser Bald and set about charring numerous peaks and ridges as it marched relentlessly in the direction of the nearby Nantahala Gorge. By the time the rains returned in early December and allowed firefighters to finally contain it the Tellico Fire had consumed some 14,000-acres of Nantahala National Forest.
Other than the daily incident reports I knew little about what actual damage was being done by the wildfire. Area roads and trails (including the Appalachian Trail) were closed to the public soon after the fire began. Luckily the area the fire burned was all but uninhabited. There was one structure I was immediately concerned about, however, and that was the Wesser Bald Lookout. All through the month of November I had read numerous conflicting reports on the condition of the tower following the fire. Some reports indicated it had survived pretty much intact while others flatly stated that it was a total loss. I was skeptical that the entire tower had been destroyed as, aside from the wooden observation deck, the structure is almost entirely made of steel. If the flames had reached high enough though it was possible that the steel skeleton was all that was left. Early on I decided that I would have to see for myself once the trails were reopened.
On December 9th the U.S. Forest Service finally lifted the closure on the section of the Appalachian Trail which had burned between Tellico Gap and the Nanatahala River. The very next day I set out to see what, if anything, remained of the forests surrounding Wesser Bald and the old tower I was so fond of at its summit. To my surprise it didn't take long for me to figure out that the reports of total devastation in the area were wildly overblown. As I began the winding drive up to Tellico Gap it was apparent that the wildfire, at least in that area, was of very low intensity as little more than the leaf litter seemed to have burned. I began the hike at the gap and started the climb via the A.T. to the summit. For the most part the forest seemed to have survived with little damage. The forest floor had been cleared, to be sure, and the landscape was still coated in a black layer of ash but none of the live trees seemed to have been harmed. I took this as a good indicator that the tower would be fine. I was correct. Upon reaching the summit I found the Wesser Bald Lookout to be completely unscathed by the fire. In fact, I found nary a soot stain on so much as its concrete base. I was incredibly relieved. Things could have been far worse.
Overall this hike wasn't so much a journey to enjoy wonderful views (though there were plenty) but rather a walk to reconnoiter the effects of the fire which had swept over this mountain a month prior to my visit. I found a scarred landscape, to be sure, but it was a landscape that will surely recover quickly. Rains will wash the blackened soil clean and when the greens of spring come they will quickly camouflage whatever evidence might be left of the fires which swept through here in November. Best of all, as I already stated, the venerable old tower atop Wesser Bald looks to be in as good a shape as ever. So, come on along with me as I tour the immediate after-effects of one of the largest wildfires seen in the mountains of western North Carolina in half a century. It was a unique walk and I look forward to visiting again next spring to see how the forest begins its recovery.
Trailhead GPS Coordinates: 35.268162, -83.572288
Mileage Hiked: 2.3 miles Hike Duration: 1:15
Trailhead Temp: 20'F Trail Traffic: None!!
Min. Elevation: 3,850' Max. Elevation: 4,627'
Total Vertical Gain: 780' Avg. Elevation Gain / Mile: 339'