Officials: 700 structures burned in Chimney Tops 2 Fire near Gatlinburg, TN

IR image of burned structures

Above: A November 29 infrared image of an area within the Chimney Tops 2 Fire in Seivier County, Tennessee. The white areas represent heat, areas that either ARE burning or they previously burned and retained some of the heat. For example, a concrete slab, ashes, and bricks would stay hot for hours after most of the fire burned out or was extinguished. The larger white rectangular objects are most likely burned structures. 

On Wednesday afternoon officials confirmed that 700 structures burned in the Chimney Tops 2 Fire in Tennessee. Of that total, 300 were in Gatlinburg and 400 were in other parts of Sevier County.

The Tennessee Department of Health reported Wednesday that the death count in the fire has risen to seven and the number of injuries has increased to 45.

A mandatory evacuation is still in effect for most of the City of Gatlinburg.

Fire suppression resources assigned to the fire include 9 hand crews, 22 engines, 7 helicopters, 4 dozers — for a total of 285 personnel.

WBIR has a list of areas affected by the fire with brief descriptions of the damage.

As predicted, another round of rain assisted firefighters on Wednesday, dropping between 1.28 and 1.76 inches at four weather stations in the Gatlinburg area during the 24 hours ending at 11:50 p.m. EST.

precipitation Gatlinburg
Precipitation recorded at four weather stations in the Gatlinburg area during the 24-hour period ending at 11:50 p.m. EST November 30, 2016. Click to enlarge.

For the most current information about the Chimney Tops 2 Fire at Gatlinburg, see our articles tagged “Chimney 2 Fire”.

Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, Bill Gabbert now writes about it from the Black Hills.

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15 thoughts on “Officials: 700 structures burned in Chimney Tops 2 Fire near Gatlinburg, TN”

  1. Likewise, my condolences to all.
    I’ve been following fire-related websites in the “off-season” only this year and intermittently at that, so I’ve no fire activity history to go by for the SE USA. Are these fires of the last two(?) months an unusual occurrence in the South? If so or not, have the states and the Fed been slow to respond to the increase in fires this season? Especially those – such as this one – which seemed to portend danger to towns in its earliest days?
    I was surprised by the personnel and equipment statistics – the total numbers of each for all fires combined – often seemed to be what we would see in the west on one smallish fire? Were the fires expected to burn themselves out in short order? Was the firefighting community (at all levels) caught unawares to the potential? Is this why (from my intermittent viewing) massive amounts of personnel, equipment and aircraft – especially the LATs and VLATS – were not immediately called up to attack any fire with even a remote chance of burning over towns?
    I’m certainly not intending any “hindsight bashing”, but as one with little knowledge of wildland firefighting, even I could see ahead to the burnovers of various inhabited areas and towns with many of these fires. And if for no other reason than the sheer number of fires, I would have thought a call-up of the aforementioned “big (aviation) guns” (at the least) would have come early on and then be used constantly against the majority of the fires, especially those with any possibility of concern.
    Please explain what I have apparently missed and/or don’t understand with this ongoing scenario.
    I pray everyone involved in any way with/through any of these fires have every need quickly met, their lives fully restored, and come away the better for what has undoubtedly been a shock to all.

    1. No one seems to want to talk about the early days of this fire from when it was sighted at 5PM on 11/23 covering 1 to 2 acres thru 11/27 evening. Have not heard what actions were taken during this time frame to extinguish this fire which started in a high tourist area of the park and so near the down wind city of Gatlinburg.

      1. I mention in a reply to a lower post that I have a picture of the sign the park posted on the Sunday the 27th.

        To paraphrase the sign…”monitoring” , and “not directly fighting” are the 2 big takeaways.

        With that being said, and the fact that I was there, with a pretty good understanding of the terrain and the weather conditions that were in play …

        The terrain to fight that fire is impossible to fight on the ground… The trail that leads to the top of the Chimneys is labeled “strenuous”. I hiked that trail first in my early 20’s and it is not easy. The last mile is like walking up stairs.
        The fire started on top of a 3000+ft rock/ cliff/ mountain peak and fire likes to go uphill … looking at the fire from 3- 5 miles away on Sunday, with them dropping water on it…it looked contained / under control with no danger to anyone.

        Severe drought has plagued the region for the last 3 months. For the weeks leading up to the fire and through Sunday the 27th the winds have been from the NW to SE, ( With those winds no threat to the tourist areas to the North).

        Monday 28th, the wind changed direction due to a low pressure and an approaching frontal boundary. This change in wind direction started out SSW to NNE, then SW to NE and at some point Monday winds shifted South to North, ( which puts Gatlinburg / Pigeon Forge “downwind”), and the winds, even though predicted, were considerably stronger than predicted. I saw one report of “up to 90mph” ( not verified ), that is Cat 1 Hurricane winds.

        On Sunday there was at least 1 Chinook dropping water on the fire.

        1. According to the park superintendent they were fighting the fire (in some manner) from the ground from day one. My question is: if ” The terrain to fight that fire is impossible to fight on the ground” why weren’t they fighting it from the air on day one? You can’t have it both ways.

          Regarding location, my point was just that this fire originated at the end of a 2 mile trail starting off of the highway (HWY 441) which goes thru the park . Not in the middle of the backcountry of Yosemite.

  2. Thanks, Doug M…
    Looking beyond this fire to others preceding it where there were dangers to people, structures, etc., am I correct in my assumption that – great cost notwithstanding, which could be borne by all affected/participating states and the Fed – LATs and VLATS could have been used (not to mention scores of helos) to make multiple partial-load cross-drops on individual “critical” fires and/or partial-load drops on multiple small fires?
    I read one of Bill’s postings regarding the operating costs of aircraft – they certainly don’t come cheap! However, has anyone looked at the hundreds-of-millions(?) spent on long-term fires (only actual firefighting costs) versus the costs of overwhelming aviation responses near-immediately upon fire discovery?
    Am I correct in my understanding that this is the posture that CalFire has been taking with good success, calling out air support early on and in quickly-ever-increasing numbers, to (hopefully) stop fires before they become major?
    Here’s a related thought someone recently asked of me, for which I had no answer: Any idea how often decisions are made to actually allow fires to NOT be immediately, aggressively and overwhelmingly attacked with aviation resources, thereby “protecting/assuring” use of other personnel, resources and support structures (i.e., fire support services vendors)?
    Policy of this sort certainly has its benefits – we don’t want to lose vendors, for example… And, some (many?) fires, arguably, ought to be allowed to burn to great size to restore the natural course of regeneration…
    Mind you, I do realize there are many variables to wildland firefighting; fires can quickly advance to a point that no amount of anything will slow or stop them; aviation must be in conjunction with “standard” resources; and there are certainly uncountable numbers of issues I know not of; and so forth.
    But I am interested in all of this and would very much appreciate any and all responses, discussion, etc. in regard to my questions and such, as long as I’m not going where too many others have gone before me!
    With that thought in mind, if I’m just basically ignorant or such, I don’t have any problem being told so! Nothing wrong with ignorance; it’s one’s response to it that matters.
    Hope everyone has a GREAT day!

  3. There are a lot of questions that need to be answered about what transpired from the 25th to the 27th. The two previous posts point out many. What was the team structure those days? Who was in charge?
    The weather was forecast. But the reponse seemed delayed. Especially the decision to evacuate. Other fires in the region had shown rapid spread. the fuels in the region were being modeled as a brush model to match observed behavior. So knowledge of the spread potential was available.
    I don’t think this will end well for the fire managers unfortunately but it will have to come out.

  4. I have searched all available websites to determine what resources were on the Chimney Tops 2 fire 11/23-11/27. I have found absolutely no information on it from the Park service, but the South Area Coordination Center Situation Report says that as of of 11/29/16 the morning after the fire blew up there were 53 people assigned to it, including 3 engines and 3 helicopters. I think the state, county and city officials should seriously question Great Smoky Mountains National Park officials as to what fire suppression efforts were going on 11/23-11/28? The damage of fire escape from the Park was huge!

    1. I have a picture of the sign the Park posted detailing what they were doing. I took the picture Sunday the 27th.
      Portion of the message from the sign:
      “Due to the inaccessible terrain of vertical cliffs, narrow rock ridges and steep drainages the fire is not being fought directly. It is being monitored by Park fire management personnel.”
      “In concern for firefighter safety, natural barriers are being utilized as much as possible to contain the fire.”

      Also note that Sunday the 27th I witnessed a Chinook helicopter make multiple drops on the fire at Chimney tops.

    2. Following is the information given from the official incident report. No description of actions taken from the 23rd to the 27th. It also fails to mention that the fire started at the end of a heavily traveled trail which I have hiked many times, just a few mile day hike. So maybe access was difficult but there certainly was access. And if access was such a problem, wouldn’t you use water drops to extinguish? Full disclosure, please understand I know very little about fighting wildfires. And after re-reading this summary, I would call it a real stretch to describe this as “a remote location of the park”. It’s right at the north end of the park where probably 80% of the tourist activity takes place.

      Incident Summary: The Chimney Tops 2 Fire was reported in Great Smoky Mountains National Park near Gatlinburg, TN on Wednesday, November 23, 2016 at approximately 5:20 p.m. The wildfire began burning in a remote location (Chimney Tops) of the park in steep terrain with vertical cliffs and narrow rocky ridges making access to the wildfire area difficult for firefighting efforts. On Monday, November 27th, continuous exceptional drought conditions and extreme winds caused the wildfire to grow rapidly, causing numerous new wildfire starts from embers carried miles away and downed powerlines in and adjacent to Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The wildfire was determined to be human-caused and is currently under investigation.

  5. Don H,
    To answer your very first question it depends what you mean by “unusual occurrence”.
    Fire “bust” like what the SE is experiencing in the fall of 2016 do reoccur but, roughly, only once in one to two decades. I would describe that as an infrequent occurrence and not an unusual occurrence.

    Perhaps like you, I was a career wildland firefighter based from the west of the USA (in my case USFS 28 years retired). Long story short I learned that the woods of Dixie (in the highlands above the piedmont) are dominated by deciduous trees. Every fall these trees drop incredible amounts of dead leaves over a period of weeks- many inches to feet high in accumulation. Fall in the SE is never without windy days. Typically the leaf fall accumulation is accompanied by frequent precipitation in amounts sufficient to not only keep the leaves wet to the ground but significantly collapse the pile.

    Infrequently fall seasons see little to no precipitation and the leaf fall pile remains “lofted” and dry. A righteous fuel bed for wildfire. Given ignition(s) during a windy day(s) the leaf pile burns like gunpowder.

    Another factor that cannot be overstated is the ever growing Wildland Urban Interface (WFI), the increase being huge in each of the above mentioned one or two decade cycle. Looking at fire behavior and spread rates alone the addition of the man made fuel load makes the whole thing more complex. The leaf fall, wind and lack or occurrence of precipitation is given. The WFI is the big new gorilla in the room.

    As for your other questions; I am not there… I will invite you to connect the dots or others closer to the incidents to comment.

  6. Look at the resources available in the region on the southern area situation report. I assure you, there was no lack of LAT and Type 1 Helo. There were multiple IMT1 and IMT 2 in the Appalachians through this period. Many from the West. Again, this is a historic fuel situation but the seriousness was not lost on us locals.
    I read one article from the 25th, when it was around 5 acres, that they were trying to contain it using trails, handline and drainages. Although those tactics can work in normal years, it was well known that it was not working this year and many fires in the region had gotten out until larger lines and mop up were done. It does seem the whoever was managing this fire over that weekend failed to see the potential and was treating it like a normal year.

  7. At the 11AM news conference just completed the mayor of Sevier County just shut down the press and ended the news conference when a member of the media attempted to ask questions regarding the actions taken by officials before the fire exploded on Monday. So much for transparency.

  8. Thanks to all those with the expertise and experience who commented above to give me a better picture of this fire situation. Maybe not part of this discussion but the lack of “foresight” by the fire managers was compounded by the lack of a timely evacuation by county and city officials resulting in loss of civilian life. Yes there are explanations for the actions of all parties involved, so at this point in time, it is just my opinion which may or may not prove to be factional when all is said and done.

    And in case you wish to look at some other views from Google Earth, etc. the infrared picture at the beginning of this thread looks to be the Westgate Resort in Gatlinburgh with the rectangular building in the bottom left being the undamaged water park.

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