Strong winds and communication issues were to blame, according to officials
I remember it well. As someone who has called these mountains home for the last 35 years, it was a devastating event to witness. Years have passed, but the scars remain. Large swaths of the forest burned in November of 2016. Of course, some scars heal eventually. As more years pass, more green growth will envelop the deadwood. Other scars. however, stay with us. Gatlinburg and Sevier County burned Monday night, 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 trail on the Wednesday prior, 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.
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Damages and losses
The wildfire caught local and federal park officials unprepared. The fire claimed the lives of 14 people, injured an estimated 190 people and caused millions in damages. It affected an estimated 2,400 buildings. It was one of the largest natural disasters in Tennessee’s history. There’s a video filmed by a man named Michael Luciano of him and Anthony Fulton’s desperate escape from Chalet Village. It’s white-knuckle stuff like something out of a Hollywood disaster movie. The 14-minute video, embedded above, 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. Along the way, they pass countless cabins and chalets, fully engulfed and burning like kindling. Simply watching the video is harrowing. I can’t imagine living it.
What really caused the fire
Accusations were abundant. When two juveniles were arrested on December 7 and charged with aggravated arson, many people assumed they had the answer. However, by the time a federal judge dropped the charges six months later, some had lost focus on the fire. Others were angry that the boys would not face punishment, and subsequent civil lawsuits were filed against the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Of course, because of the size of the fire and 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.
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 Tops 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. The following is a rough timeline of what occurred, starting a few days before.
A timeline of events
It began at The Chimney Tops, where a fire had been burning for several days. Officials with the Great Smoky Mountains National Park determined it was in a spot too difficult to fight due to the dangerous and steep terrain. Crews set a 400-acre containment area in which the fire would be allowed to burn and planned to let the fire burn itself out. But, the autumn of 2016 in East Tennessee had been exceptionally dry. The region was in the midst of a drought. Fires of various sizes burned all over East Tennessee. The National Park Service (NPS) monitored the Chimney Tops fire. It was being treated as a normal fire. However, it was no normal fire.
The high wind gusts up to 87 mph, in addition to creating a firestorm, knocked down power lines and created new fires. The strong winds carried burning embers, sparking still more hotspots and increasing the spread of the fire. Extreme drought conditions meant there was a massive amount of highly flammable fuel throughout the region.
Meanwhile, back in Gatlinburg, life continued. Tourists, locals and officials were mindful of the fire, which brought smoke and ash into the city. Still, there was little concern the fire would reach the city. Models provided by the Pigeon Forge Fire Department indicated it would take 19 hours for the fire to reach the city limits. In actuality, the fire reached Gatlinburg’s city limits in two hours.
What went wrong
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. An independently commissioned report by the ABS listed some communication successes – such as the call for mutual aid – but listed six major communication issues as well.
First of all, radio communications overloaded the Sevier County radio system at times. Secondly, communication between departments became an issue as a result of a lack of interoperability of radio frequencies and channel allocation. Also, communications were hampered due to the fire intensity and high winds. Additionally, 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. Another problem was the lack of sufficient interoperability among city, county, state and federal agencies which created critical obstacles to direct communications. And finally, the original EOC and other offices of city officials had to be evacuated to another location in Gatlinburg.
The Gatlinburg Fire Chief, in court documents, laid much of the blame on the NPS. “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.
Ongoing legal battles and recovery
Ultimately, we can’t go back in time. 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. The legal battles continue as of this writing in 2023. Those affected by the fire sued the government in 2018, alleging negligence by NPS employees. A judge last year dismissed the lawsuits, but the legal battles continue today as they move forward with a make-or-break hearing, according to WBIR.
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 for those affected over the next three years. The pledge to fund it would be at least $3 million. Dollywood, located in Pigeon Forge, was unscathed. However, the company lost some cabins in the fire.
Do you remember the Gatlinburg fires of 2016? Let us know in the comments. View the web story version of this article here.