What caused the fire in Gatlinburg in 2016? Here’s the real story

Damage from the Gatlinburg 2016 fire

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 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.

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

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)

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 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

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.

  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.
  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.
  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.
  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

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.

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

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.

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20 thoughts on “What caused the fire in Gatlinburg in 2016? Here’s the real story”

  1. I live here and I remember that evening eating at Henderson Chapel Baptist Church and see and smelling the woods on fire
    And knew the Reeds met them a week before the horrible fire and it broke my heart
    It also came out that the boys didn’t set the fire it was the Rangers they lost control of the situation
    And tourist and Residents of this Parish

  2. I too live here. Was admiring Gods handy work just today! Birds, Deer, etc. The G-burg fires remind me of the ole adage, “We are from the Government, trust us, we are here to help. We have the situation completely under control .” Nuf Said!

  3. The very early decision by the NPS to let the fire “burn itself out” was one of the major contributors to the size and scale of the destruction. At the point it was first reported, the fire was approximately 4 acres. Then, the following day, with high winds in the forecast and a 40 acre fire, they doubled-down on that terrible decision. The 3rd day, with 400 acres now burning, the winds had arrived and the situation was deemed “too risky” to contend with. All of 3 of these decisions were made by the NPS in the midst of the worst drought in 100 years. All of the golf courses in Sevier County had allowed their grass to turn brown because of the expense to continue to water it: that’s the type of drought. In 30+ years of visiting and investing in Gatlinburg, I had never seen brown golf courses. There were hundreds of contributing fires caused by downed power lines due to the high winds on days 2, 3, 4. Did the boys set the Chimney Tops II fire? Probably. Did the NPS make the situation 1,000x worse by ignorance, arrogance and inaction? Absolutely.

  4. I’m curious to know if the NPS was sued by the families who lost loved ones and the businesses who suffered damage or loss.

  5. The KNP Complex Fire that devastated Sequoia National Park and surrounding lands in September-October 2021 had much in common with the Gatlinburg disaster…chief among the commonalities is Superintendant Clay Jordan. Jordan and his crew let the KNP fire burn for five days before doing anything.

    The result was six weeks of AQIs above 600 for those of us who lived just downhill from the Park…six weeks of living under evacuation orders, 80 years of life packed into one car…lands my family had lived on, loved and cared for over five generations reduced to a heartbreaking deathscape.

  6. I live in Seymour off 411 Hwy. The night of the Gatlinburg fire the entire view of Bluff Mountain was lit up by the fire. The common assumption among long tome Smokey Mt. residents was that it was too green and lush here for there ever to be a fire like are seen out west. But the few years before the fire I remember reading reports by experts saying that the Smokey Mts. were overdue for a bad fire because of all the underbrush accumulated over many years. This prompted me to start cleaning up my small patch of woods on my property. So I wasn’t surprised by the fire itself. However, the speed at which it spread and the damage to human and animal life was shocking. Lesson learned for a homeowner…keep brush 50-100 yards away from the house…clean up flammable debris…never stack firewood next to house…have water hoses easily accessible…have an evacuation plan…and value human life above material possessions.

  7. Roger, you cannot sue the federal government, no matter how much they mess things up.

  8. I was there on vacation at the time of the fire very scary where we stayed burned down so heartbreaking and devastating to see.

  9. I was born and raised in Blount County, a neighbor to Sevier County. A lot of my life was spent in the Smokey Mountains. I wasn’t there when this fire happened but I watched on tv news. It was truly devastating. When I read this article I cried again. I spent many days and nights in tears for the people that were my neighbors. I live in Oregon now but my heart will always belong to the Smokey Mountains of East Tennessee.

  10. I had just been there stayed at river Terrace. On our way there we were re routed in NC. It was so many fires because of drought. Crushed when l saw and heard of so much damage. Especially saddened by loss of life. Glad things are back l love it there.

  11. I remember very good. Our house was on Cliff Branch Road in Chalet Village. Thank God we weren’t there.

  12. We were supposed to be there that weekend but went the weekend before. My heart broke for the people there. Tears flowed as we watched it unfold on the news. We could only pray for the people. God bless the Smoky Mountains.

  13. I knew something was wrong, really wrong, when the winds changed. I had heard about the fires in the Smokies extensively living in the valley where I do. The day the sky turned red and yellow, the wind howled, and almost the whole East Tennessee valley started to smell the burning I knew that the night and morning would bring massive death and destruction. Family and friends were worried about what direction the fires were going. It was a sad and stressful time for East Tennessee. We were scared and now there are still many people who are angry. It will be a long time before the scars of the Chimney Tops Fires AKA The Great Fire heal.

  14. We were there shortly after and it was so sad. We had friends who were there during, I remember it well. I won’t place blame but I sure hate it happened. Such a beautiful place in all of God’s creation to have to go through that. I pray for the folks who lost life, God bless as you still recover.

  15. That was my great nephew, Tony, driving the truck and his best friend, Michael, shooting the video. I remember texting my niece to see if he was okay and she said I was just talking to him and he said…we have to leave and hung up. The video is of them leaving. I thank God that they survived. Makes me sick to my stomach seeing the video. For one reason or another their house was spared, but all of them around them were destroyed.

  16. Our family was in the fire. We lost both my aunt & uncle in the fire and by the grace of God my 3 cousins survived after time spent in the burn unit at Vanderbilt. A time our family will never forgot. Such a tragedy.

  17. We are frequent visitors to Gatlinburg, and had left town the morning of the fire. The four days prior, the air had been full of smoke and ash, even in downtown Gatlinburg. We had been assured that there was no danger, and everything seemed to be business as usual. Once we had arrived home in Georgia, we turned on the news to see that the fire was threatening the entire area. It was shocking and upsetting. I was so glad to see the community pulling themselves back together. It was devastating, but little Gatlinburg really showed what the community is made of!

  18. Those boys caused the Chimney fires and video taped it. They were the cause and it was dropped because of the position of one of their fathers. I mean, really? They should have been severely punished!

  19. I was raised on Baskins Creek Road and am very disappointed at the way everything was organized. My father Myrl Carr said he didn’t get a phone call or a knock on the door for a warning. He almost lost his life in that fire. My family is “Old Family” in Gatlinburg. The total lost of homes was 8. We were lucky everyone still had their health. I want to know if communications were so badly interrupted why did Ham-Radios not be a main communication. 10 meters to 160 meters can talk all over the world and you DO NOT need towers. I am so disappointed in the way this was handled.

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