The scars remain.
It’s nearly five years later. But large swaths of the forest that burned in November of 2016 have yet to heal.
They will heal eventually. As more years pass, green growth will envelop the deadwood.
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, created hell on one of the prettiest places on God’s Earth.
The unholy concoction of conditions created a perfect storm. It was a screaming monster of flame and heat and terror that moved swiftly and unpredictably.
How many died in the Gatlinburg fire?
The fires caught local and federal officials unprepared. The fire 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.
Editor’s note: There is strong language in the video.
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 were in failed, they would have very likely died a horrible death.
Along the way, they pass countless cabins and chalets, fully engulfed, burning like kindling.
Simply watching the video is harrowing. I can’t imagine living it.
Two boys were arrested, but charges were later dropped
Because of the size of the fire, because of the damage it inflicted, the fire was big news.
With that interest came an amazing outpouring of financial support and, of course, a natural interest in what caused the disaster.
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. Others were angry that the boys would not face punishment.
What started the fire in Gatlinburg? The bigger picture
In the months and years following the fires, a fuller picture of what caused the fire 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.
Communication problems complicated the issue for local officials, who were ill-prepared for the level of hell approaching.
Before the disaster, 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.
But, 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. Fires of various sizes burned all over East Tennessee.
NPS monitored the Chimney Top fire. It was being treated as a normal fire.
However, it was no normal fire.
As the weather reports began to indicate the looming approach of a significant wind storm, efforts to fight the fire were increased.
The efforts weren’t enough
The high winds, in addition to creating a firestorm, knocked down power lines and created 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.
A communication breakdown
Meanwhile, back in Gatlinburg, life continued.
Tourists, locals and officials were mindful of the fire, which brought smoke and ash into the city. Still, officials were in communication with the NPS.
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 pm 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. 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, in part:
These responders were arriving throughout the unfolding of the firestorm, requiring staging, coordination, and deployment. …
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.
Six major communication issues
The ABS report listed some communication successes – such as the call for mutual aid – but listed six major communication issues.
- 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.
- Communication between departments became an issue as a result of a lack of interoperability of radio frequencies and channel allocation.
- Communications were hampered due to the fire intensity and high winds.
- 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.
- Lack of sufficient interoperability among city, county, state and federal agencies created critical obstacles to direct communications.
- The original EOC and other offices of city officials had to be evacuated to another location in Gatlinburg.
The most critical failure of all
The 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 means was severely hampered by power outages from the fire and storm.
The problems manifested themselves in a myriad of ways.
For example, the information did not always make it to the PIO for dissemination. Dispatchers did not receive clear updates on the status of the fires. Messages sometimes did not reach the intended recipients due to a combination of factors.
Did Gatlinburg recover from the fire?
Ultimately, nothing can fix the problems of the past. The key is to learn from those mistakes and prepare for the future.
Gatlinburg is a strong town. But we will never forget the lost lives.
How Dolly Parton helped those who suffered
After the fires, Dolly Parton stepped up and organized massive fundraising.
Her My People Fund promised each family which had lost its primary residence in the fires $1,000 a month for the next five months.
When Parton arrived to help dole out the final payments, she brought the nearly 900 families an unexpected bonus.
This included another $5,000 each for a total of $10,000. The creation of the Mountain Tough organization would provide ongoing support to fire victims over the next three years.
The pledge to fund it would be at least $3 million.
Do you remember the Gatlinburg fires of 2016? Let us know in the comments.
Click here to view the web story version of this article.