The real story behind the Gatlinburg fires of 2016

A gutted carcass is all that remains of a car in the aftermath of a forest fire that destroyed part of Gatlinburg (Carolyn Franks / Shutterstock.com)

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The scars remain.

It’s more than three years later but large swaths of forest, burned in November 2016, have yet to heal.

They will heal eventually. As more years pass, green growth will envelop the deadwood, and the path raging inferno – infernos really – took as they burned every bit of fuel they could reach will be erased.

Some scars heal with the passage of time. Others, however, stay with us.

Gatlinburg and Sevier County burned the night of Nov. 28, 2016. Extraordinarily dry conditions, combined with a wind storm with hurricane-like power and a problematic fire in a hard to reach spot at the Chimney Tops, to create hell on one of the prettiest places on God’s Earth.

The unholy concoction of conditions created a perfect storm, a screaming monster of flame and heat and terror that moved swiftly, unpredictably and overwhelmed responses.

The fires caught local and federal officials unprepared, claimed the lives of 14 people and caused millions in damages.

There’s a video shot by a man named Michael Luciano of he and Anthony Fulton’s desperate escape from the Chalet Village Fire. It’s white-knuckle stuff like something out of a Hollywood disaster movie.

The 14-minute video shows both sides of the road glowing yellow, orange and red. Burning embers and ash fill the air and downed trees threaten to trap the men. If the truck they’re in fails, they will very likely die a horrible death.

Along the way they pass countless cabins and chalets, fully engulfed, burning like kindling.

Just watching the video is harrowing, I can’t imagine living it.

Child's bicycle destroyed by the Gatlinburg fire (Carolyn Franks / Shutterstock.com)
Child’s bicycle destroyed by the Gatlinburg fire (archive photo, Carolyn Franks / Shutterstock.com)

Two boys were arrested, but charges were later dropped

Because of the size of the fire, because of the damage it inflicted, because of footage like Luciano’s and because of Gatlinburg’s place as an internationally known tourist destination, the fire was big news.

With that interest came an amazing outpouring of financial support and, of course, a natural interest in what had caused the disaster in the first place.

When two juveniles were arrested on December 7 and charged with aggravated arson, many people assumed they had the answer.

However, by the time those charges were dropped six months later, many had lost focus on the fire while others were angry that the boys would not face punishment.

The remains of a large building in Gatlinburg from the fires of 2016 (Joshua K Pruitt / Shutterstock.c.om)
The remains of a large building in Gatlinburg from the fires of 2016 (archive photo, Joshua K Pruitt / Shutterstock.com)

The real story emerges

In the months and years following the fires, a fuller picture emerged. Even if investigators could conclusively prove the boys started the Chimney Top fire, it was the windstorm that proved to be the driving force behind the disaster, which was complicated by communication problems and an overwhelmed response which was ill-prepared for the level of hell approaching.

The Chimney Top fire had been burning for several days. Officials with the National Park Service determined it was in a spot too difficult to fight. They set a 400 acre box – an area in which the fire would be allowed to burn – and planned to let the fire burn itself out as others in the region had done before.

It’s important to note that the autumn of 2016 in East Tennessee had been exceptionally dry. The region was in the midst of an epic drought and fires of various sizes burned all over East Tennessee.

The Chimney Tops fire was monitored by the NPS, but was being treated as a normal fire would. However, as the weather reports began to indicate the looming approach of a significant wind storm, efforts to fight the fire were increased.

It wasn’t enough.

The high winds, in addition to creating a fire storm screaming off the mountain, knocked down power lines, creating new fires. The winds carried burning embers, sparking still more hotspots. Under non-drought conditions, at least some experts had been warning officials that not allowing smaller fires to burn up fuel on the forest floor would lead to bigger fires in the future. The extreme drought conditions meant there was a massive amount of highly flammable fuel throughout the region, just waiting to burn.

A motel complex lies in ruins after a major forest fire roared through Gatlinburg and a large section of the Smoky Mountains in late December 2016 (Carolyn Franks / Shutterstock.com)
A motel complex lies in ruins after a major forest fire roared through Gatlinburg and a large section of the Smoky Mountains in late December 2016 (archive photo, Carolyn Franks / Shutterstock.com)

A communication breakdown

Back in Gatlinburg, life continued apace. Tourists, locals and officials were mindful of the fire, which brought smoke and – on that Monday morning – ash into the city. Still officials were in communication with the NPS and there was little concern the fire would reach the city.

In fact, according to an independent report by the ABS group, as late as 4:30 p.m. on the 28th, models provided by the Pigeon Forge Fire Department indicated it would take 19 hours for the fire to reach the city limits. In actuality, fire reached the city limits in two hours.

First responders reacted heroically, as calls for mutual aid went out across the region. The quick actions of many of the area’s firefighters, police and EMS workers saved lives, but often they were operating without enough information.

The report states:

“These responders were arriving throughout the unfolding of the firestorm, requiring staging, coordination, and deployment. Efficiently coordinating the logistics and support of these many units while the dynamics of the fire situation were rapidly evolving was a major challenge” 

“Clear, concise and prompt communications were necessary for a successful emergency response. Communications within the EOC, although at times noisy and extremely busy due to the scope and scale of the Chimney Tops 2 firestorm, remained fluid and effective based on the information being received. To provide a constant flow of communications, this information was often updated with area law enforcement and firefighting personnel. When evacuation decisions were reached, the outcome and direction were immediately disseminated to police and fire personnel deployed in the field. Teams of police and firefighters organized at the incident level to help ensure all residents in homes that could be reached were notified of the evacuation.”

“Interagency communications between fire and police personnel actively engaged in firefighting, rescue, evacuation, and general assistance remained constant although the weather, fire debris, and fire dynamics and intensity created brief interruptions between the EOC and field units.”

The ABS report listed some communication successes – such as the call for mutual aid – but listed six major communication issues.

  1. The radio communications overloaded the Sevier County radio system at times. Some busy signals occurred due to the abundance of radio traffic and the lack of available radio frequencies for the GPD.
  2. Communication between departments became an issue as a result of a lack of interoperability of radio frequencies and channel allocation.
  3. Communications were hampered due to the fire intensity and high winds (e.g., at times field personnel could not hear voice commands over the radio).
  4. Critical communications links between the City of Gatlinburg EOC and TEMA were significantly interrupted and contributed to TEMA not sending the requested IPAWS message to evacuate Gatlinburg.
  5. Lack of sufficient interoperability among city, county, state, and federal agencies created critical obstacles to direct communications. This issue required working around the inability of mutual aid responding agencies to communicate with each other and the established EOC or the GPD Communications Center.
  6. The original EOC and other offices of city officials had to be evacuated to another location in Gatlinburg.
Only the shell of a motel office remains after being destroyed by a forest fire in Gatlinburg (Carolyn Franks / Shutterstock.com)
Only the shell of a motel office remains after being destroyed by a forest fire in Gatlinburg (archive photo, Carolyn Franks / Shutterstock.com)

The ‘most critical failure’ of all

Gatlinburg Fire Chief, in court documents obtained by WBIR, laid much of the blame on the park service.  

“By the time local officials were informed about the true danger, the Chimney Tops 2 fire was unstoppable,” Greg Miller’s statement reads. “A lack of early notice was the most critical failure of all.”

The city of Gatlinburg did not, at that time, employ a full time information officer nor have a crisis communication plan. Instead, the city contracted for limited PIO services with the Convention Center and Visitors Bureau. That person’s attempt to keep the public notified through traditional and social media, as well as a LISTSERV group email system of local businesses, was severely hampered by power outages from the fire and storm.

“Limited staffing for the PIO function and absence of a crisis communications plan created challenges in maintaining a needed awareness of developments surrounding the fire. From the early afternoon and throughout the firestorm, the absence of a crisis communications plan would prove problematic in establishing protocols, issuing community notifications, and keeping the media informed.”

The problems manifested themselves in a myriad of ways.

For example, information did not always make it to the PIO for dissemination, dispatchers were not given clear updates on the status of the fires and messages sometimes did not reach the intended recipients due to a combination of factors.

“All first responders, [Gatlinburg command center] personnel and field command staff were unaware of the rate at which the fire spread was occurring,” the ABS report found. “The fire was unable to be fully assessed in its entirety. … More timely and accurate communications from the [park] personnel would have helped the city to prepare sooner for what was a catastrophic event.”

Damage from the fires of 2016 (Joshua K Pruitt / Shutterstock.com)
Damage from the fires of 2016 (archive photo, Joshua K Pruitt / Shutterstock.com)

Lessons Learned

Ultimately, there’s nothing that can be done to fix the problems of the past. The key is to learn from those mistakes and be better prepared for the future.

Every report praises the efforts of local first responders who often risked their own safety to save others, but each report also notes actions that can and have been taken to ensure the response will be better organized and coordinated if there is a next time.

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