Analyzing the fire that burned into Gatlinburg

drought monitor

Above: The Drought Monitor issued November 29 showed “Exceptional Drought”, the highest category, for the Gatlinburg area and large sections of Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama, North Carolina, and South Carolina.

On Monday, December 5, the Incident Management Team (IMT) on the Chimney Tops 2 Fire that burned from Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GRSM) into the Gatlinburg area reported that it has caused the deaths of 14 people. Over 130 sustained injuries, and 1,684 structures have been damaged or destroyed. Approximately 14,000 residents were originally forced to evacuate.

There are three broad categories of conditions that affect the way a wildfire burns: weather, fuels (vegetation), and topography. When the Chimney Tops 2 Fire burned into Gatlinburg on November 28, 2016 and destroyed those structures it was driven primarily by weather — specifically, very strong winds.

But the condition of the fuel was also important since it happened during what the National Weather Service (NWS) calls “exceptional drought” conditions. Much of the southeastern United States had been suffering extremely dry conditions for two to three months.

One indicator of drought and its effect on how wildfires burn is the Keetch-Byram Drought Index (KBDI). (The fire was in eastern Tennessee near the North Carolina border.)

Keetch-Byram Drought Index
We have asked for a standard KBDI graph usually used by fire managers showing the 2016 KBDI, the average KBDI by date, and the maximum recorded by date. When we receive it, we will add it to the article.

On November 23 when the fire was discovered the KBDI was 599, Molly Schroer, a spokesperson for the IMT told us. For reference, 600 or above would indicate severe drought and increased wildfire occurrence. Intense, deep burning fires with significant downwind spotting should be expected. A fire burning under those conditions would likely burn more intensely, have a rate of spread faster than normal, and have more resistance to control. Many fire managers in that situation would immediately attack emerging fires very aggressively with overwhelming force, that is, many firefighters on the ground assisted by numerous aircraft dropping water or fire retardant.

Ms. Schroer said she was not aware of any actual on-the-ground fire suppression efforts, other than perhaps some work on a distant indirect fireline, until Monday November 28, after the fire had grown large and crossed US Highway 141, the main road into the park. That is when it began moving rapidly toward Gatlinburg. Firefighting aircraft were not used until helicopters dropped water on the fire Sunday afternoon, November 27 four days after it started.

Wednesday, November 23, the day the fire started

At about 5:20 p.m. the fire was discovered near the top of a steep hill called Chimney Tops not far from where another fire occurred about a week before. GRSM firefighters spotted the new fire as they returned from responding to a report of a vehicle fire.  The earlier fire on the hill was named “Chimney Tops” — hence the name “Chimney Tops 2” for the new blaze.

According to Ms. Schroer, firefighters walked up the Chimney Tops Trail to the top of the hill to size it up. But very little if any fire suppression activity occurred until Monday, November 28. The action taken by firefighters on Monday was defensive, to protect threatened structures at a nearby National Park Service picnic ground.

Investigators have determined that the fire was human-caused and are asking for information from anyone who has information about people or vehicles that were seen in the area that day. The Tip Line is 888-653-0009.

Narrowing it down to human-causes is easy for an investigator. It means they eliminated natural causes, such as lightning and volcano eruptions. The fire could have been accidental, or it may have been intentional.

investigator national park service
An investigator from the National Park Service’s Investigative Services Branch looks for evidence at Chimney Tops. NPS photo.

The fire occurred in the Autumn after the deciduous trees had shed their leaves adding more fuel to the forest floor that was already abundant with desiccated leaves, twigs, dead branches, and logs that had been sucked dry of their moisture by the months of drought. The leafless trees allowed more sunlight to hit the fuel, drying it out even more.

Thursday, Thanksgiving, November 24

The day after the fire was reported 0.12 inch of rain was recorded at the official weather station recognized by the NWS, which may have made the managers of Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GRSM) feel a little better about this new fire. Only 0.05 inch fell at the Indian Grave Remote Automatic Weather Station 18 miles west of the fire. Neither was enough rain to halt the drought, of course, nor was it enough to have an extended effect on the the Chimney Tops 2 Fire.

Citing the steep terrain and the safety of firefighters, fire managers at Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GRSM) decided not to take direct action on the fire which would entail constructing fireline along the edge of the fire to remove the fuel that allows it to spread. They decided instead to monitor and to identify on a map areas for indirect containment lines which encompassed 410 acres. Some of the drainages where the managers hoped to stop the fire were a half mile away.

Saturday, November 26

The fire was approximately 8 acres in size, according to GRSM.

Sunday, November 27

sign Chimney Tops 2 Fire
A sign posted by GRSM near the Chimney Tops 2 Fire, dated November 27, 2016. Photo by Brett Bevill.

Sunday, four days after the fire started, was the first time that any firefighting aircraft were used on the fire, Ms. Schroer said. That afternoon a Chinook Type 1 helicopter (Type 1’s are the largest helicopters used on wildfires) began dropping water on the fire, refilling at Fontana Lake 13 miles to the southwest, according to a source we talked to who didn’t want their name disclosed because they were not authorized to speak on the subject. The helicopter worked until it had to refuel and then two other Type 1 helicopters took its place until dark. Sunset that day was at 5:21 p.m. which would have allowed them to drop on the fire until 5:51 p.m., 30 minutes after sunset.

Aircraft dropping water or fire retardant on a fire cannot put it out. Under ideal conditions they can temporarily slow the spread, which may be effective if firefighters on the ground can move in quickly to take advantage of the short term change in fire behavior by constructing firelines, stopping the spread at that location. In this case, there were no firefighters in a position to take direct action.

Ms. Schroer told us that additional firefighters were ordered on Sunday.

3-d map chimney tops fire
A 3-D map of the Chimney Tops 2 Fire, acquired by a mapping aircraft, looking south, showing the 35-acre perimeter on November 27.

GRSM posted “Fire Information” signs in the area explaining their “monitoring” strategy due to “vertical cliffs, narrow rock ridges and steep drainages”. They had identified on a map a “410-acre fire management area which, depending on weather conditions, may allow for further fire growth”.

The “further fire growth” part was more accurate than they realized at the time.

Chimney Tops 2 Fire information monitor
A sign posted by GRSM near the Chimney Tops 2 Fire, dated November 27, 2016. Photo by Brett Bevill.

A map posted with the Fire Information sign dated November 27 showed that the park hoped to stop the fire before it crossed the bottom of drainages on the west, north and east sides, and the Chimney Tops Trail to the south. On the map below, the fire is the small dot in the center surrounded by the yellow line.

map Chimney Tops 2 Fire
A map posted with a sign by GRSM near the Chimney Tops 2 Fire, dated November 27, 2016. Photo by Brett Bevill.

On November 27 the fire was a third of a mile as the crow flies from US Highway 441. The terrain was steep, a vertical distance of 1,300 feet from the bottom of the drainages to the top of the hill. There were cliffs in the area but firefighting Hotshot Crews can figure out how to work on steep slopes, sometimes backing off a bit, constructing a fire line and intentionally burning the fuel in between, preventing further expansion of the fire. The Chimney Tops Trail led from the highway to the top of the hill.

Beginning at 2 a.m. on Sunday November 27 the relative humidity at Indian Grave dropped, getting as low as 17 percent at 8 a.m. and then lingering in the 20s and 30s until 4 am on Monday November 28. Those are low numbers for the southeastern United States. The wind speed was 1 to 3 mph.

Chimney Tops 2 Fire August 27, 2016
Chimney Tops 2 Fire Sunday November 27, 2016. Photo by Brett Bevill.

Wildland firefighters typically request “Spot Weather Forecasts” from the NWS for wildland fires or other events that can be greatly influenced by weather. The forecasts are supposed to be detailed and customized predictions of the weather at a particular location, or “spot”, for at least the next two days.

We checked the Spot Weather Forecasts that were requested by the NPS and issued by the NWS for the Chimney Tops 2 Fire. Forecasts were issued each day from November 24 through 27; we could not find one for November 28 the day the fire burned into Gatlinburg. The forecasts from the 24th through the 26th did not predict the extreme weather that began Monday, November 28. But the last one, issued at 7 a.m. EST on Sunday by Eric Holweg, did predict strong winds. The GRSM person that requested the Spot wrote:

Concerned about ridgetop winds with the coming front. Thanks!

The forecast issued Sunday included this text in the Discussion section:

High pressure will hang on for Sunday with sunny skies and above normal temperatures. Increasing cloudiness and strong southerly winds on Monday ahead of the next storm system. Much needed rainfall is expected on Monday with additional rainfall possible through Wednesday.

An excerpt from that forecast is below.

weather Chimney Tops 2 Fire
A portion of the spot weather forecast for the Chimney Tops 2 Fire issued 7 a.m. Sunday November 27, 2016.

It predicted wind gusts out of the south Monday morning of 25 mph, increasing at noon to 30 mph and to 40 mph by 6 p.m. The fire was south of Gatlinburg.

By the end of the day on Sunday the fire had burned approximately 35 acres, according to Ms. Schroer and the results from a mapping flight (see the 3-D map above).

Monday, November 28

At 2 a.m. Monday the wind speeds recorded at Indian Grave began increasing and the direction became more consistently out of the south and southwest. Until 1 p.m. sustained speeds were 4 to 6 mph with gusts at 12 to 19 mph. Between 2 p.m. and 6 p.m. they increased to 7 to 15 mph with gusts of 22 to 32 mph —  all generally out of the south, blowing toward Gatlinburg. From 7 p.m. until midnight sustained winds were at 13 to 17 mph with gusts from 34 to 49. This data from Indian Grave was not too far off the forecast issued the day before.

When maintenance employees with GRSM drove past the Chimney Tops 2 Fire early Monday morning they saw that the intensity and rate of spread of the fire had increased dramatically. It had burned into a picnic area and crossed the main road into the park, US Highway 441.

The wind and the low visibility caused by the smoke made it impossible to fly aircraft over the fire.

On-the-ground fire suppression activity took place Monday when firefighters took defensive action to protect structures at a nearby GRSM picnic area.

Late Monday afternoon the Gatlinburg Fire Department began informing some residents of a voluntary evacuation. Later it changed to a mandatory evacuation.

The Cove Mountain weather station is 8 miles northwest of the origin of the Chimney Tops 2 Fire, 5 miles west of downtown Gatlinburg, and 3 miles west of the last known western edge of the fire. Jim Renfro, the air quality specialist for GRSM, said the strongest wind gust recorded at Cove Mountain was 87 mph at 9 p.m. on Monday. Shortly after that power was lost to the station and data stopped being recorded.

Steve Brueck of DaculaWeather.com suppied us with Local Storm Report Information from the National Weather Service that includes wind gust speeds in the general area. Gatlinburg is in Sevier County. On Monday November 28 it recorded wind gusts in that part of the state at 46 to 60 mph, and a 76 mph gust on Wednesday.

NSW wind gust speed

Tuesday, November 29

Gusts above 40 continued until 2 a.m. on Tuesday when they mostly dropped below 20 mph for the rest of the day.

gatlinburg fire radar smoke
Smoke from the wildfire near Gatlinburg, circled in blue, can be seen between rain bands in the radar image at 12:17 a.m. ET November 29, 20216.

Rain began falling late Monday night and continued until 6 a.m. Tuesday, totaling 0.78 inch at Indian Grave. At the official Gatlinburg weather station recognized by the NWS 0.73 inch was recorded on Tuesday. This rain took much of the heat out of the vegetation fire and slowed the spread, but smoke from the burning structures in the communities and smouldering logs in the Park continued to fill the air.

Wednesday, November 30

The wind remained at moderate strength on Wednesday with gusts decreasing from 37 at 3 a.m. to the lower teens by the end of the day. When the rain started again at 8 a.m. the relative humidity rose into the 90s. Another 2.3 inches accumulated that day by the time it stopped at 7 p.m.

Monday, December 5

Since November 29 it has rained about every 2 to 3 days in the Gatlinburg area. The IMT reported that the fire had not increased in size over the previous 24 hours and was still listed at 17,006 acres. Firefighting resources assigned to the fire include 25 hand crews, 61 engines, 6 helicopters, and 2 dozers, for a total 780 personnel.

The status of individual structures in the Gatlinburg area can be found at arcgiscom.

Below is the state of access to the fire area, as reported by the IMT:

The National Park is closed from the Gatlinburg Entrance to Smokemont near Oconaluftee (US 441, Newfound Gap) and Little River Road from Sugarlands Visitor Center to Townsend. The Gatlinburg ByPass is also closed. There will be no access to Wiley Oakley or Westgate from the Spur.

The Spur between Pigeon Forge to Gatlinburg is open from Pigeon Forge to the Gatlinburg Welcome Center. To access this area, it is important to follow check point protocols. There is only one check point access at East Parkway (Hwy. 321) at Glades Road and the Post Office. Be sure to bring valid forms of identification showing name and address of residence or business inside Gatlinburg. Officials will verify renters and lease holders, as needed.

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. Google+

85 thoughts on “Analyzing the fire that burned into Gatlinburg”

  1. Thanks for your rundown on the fire Bill. Due to the damage this fire has caused I’m sure there will be follow-up effects (and recriminations) for years. I’d just like to ask folks to think about If prior experience of fires in the region may have betrayed fire managers this time. Out east our experience is usually ground fire with relatively less risk of widespread destruction. Perhaps all the firefighters prior experience was giving them mental slides that were no longer valid given the conditions. If you had transposed the same fire with similar conditions to California or Idaho would it have been managed the same way? I doubt it as the experience there is of fast moving potentially devastating fires. But fires are getting nastier everywhere and folks keep saying past fire history isn’t as good a guide as it used to be. The Chimney Tops 2 could be a good case in point.

    1. The NPS, IMO, did not take an aggressive stance on this fire, and that is usually the case with them. They did too little, too late.

    2. Experience in itself is never enough. Experience by itself often lends to complacency and “been there done that thinking”. Experience must be coupled with training and planning based on forecasted possibilities and even un-forecasted what ifs. Fire behavior is predictable, based on things such as mentioned in this article; weather, terrain and fuels. But I believe there is a fourth element of fire behavior prediction and that is the element of situational awareness. The leadership tetrahedron if you will, the area where all the parts come together based on the past, the current, the potential and the possible. The chain reaction that if un-inhibited can create the perfect storm, block the perfect solutions or that can lead to the ignition of possibility and opportunity. I hope that the firefighters, leaders, and authorities in this area make sure to perform in depth After Action Reviews and make changes to avoid these issues in the future. Not to lay blame or punishment but as a real learning tool for improvement of service provision. There is much opportunity in the Eastern Appalachians to better prepare citizens, towns , leaders and firefighters; To create more fire aware and safe communities. But until the awareness of possibility and the letting go of holding onto what we think we “know” to be the truth much will remain unchanged. We must change our minds first and then we must change our actions. I left the professional fire service with 3o plus years of experience, yet with a still learning and observant mind. When I built a home here just a few years ago and wanted to have a sprinkler system installed, I was told “we don’t have big wildfires here”. I responded that the climate is changing, and so are other related situations, and there will be. How did I know that? Not because I am a teller of fortune. I know that because of my experience, my training, my ongoing learning and situational awareness of a host of related and seemingly unrelated knowledge. As it turned out the sprinklers were far above affordable means and way outside the parameters quoted by the NFPA for the cost of a standard sprinkler system so we did not get them. Now I am tasked with trying to motivate and coordinate the local fire departments much of who are volunteer, the state and national forest professionals to work with me and the community. Even though I am located adjacent to the National Forest lands on 3 sides, I cannot invite them onto my property to help me lessen the fuel load proximal to my home. They must be invited in by the state, so the bureaucracy and border silos are at issue here too. I also noted that the use of Red Flag Alerts and prescribed burning around some of the more populace areas was both lacking, and being conducted during predicted high wind conditions. Many citizens whom I spoke with had never heard the terms “red flag alert” and in absence of the term, were not aware of the situations that would lead to such a designation or where to turn to find information on wildfires. It was as if time had passed with no motivational disaster to spur this awareness, at least not in my local community. At that time their were no burn permits or building permit requirements either. Things are changing slowly, and the human factors are unfortunately changing at a much slower pace than the climate and other socio-economic factors. There are other variables that are of concern here too, such as area resources that are already low and being taxed by the sheer number of fires occurring in the region, the growth of urban interface among the eastern forests, rugged mountainous terrain and economic restraints. Situational awareness to current and predicted variables, as well as the potential of possibility is key. As a citizen with a firefighting background, I knew days ahead of time that high mountain winds were expected in the Eastern TN/NC Mountains, coupling that with the extreme drought conditions and the knowledge of the massive amount of ground fuel available in the forest based on being in the forest regularly even just days prior, outside observing the conditions and the terrain. I did not rely on a fire weather service for my information even though I new where to look, I used much of the common everyday information available to the open community, the data I had learned from and observed during the short time of being in this area, and current observations. This fire as did others around this time had highly predictable potential for massive and rapid spread. I am not one to Monday Morning Quarterback, because none of us have all the information and really we all have limited information, no one person knows it all; but as a citizen with background knowledge, experience, training, risk and situational awareness, the potential was clearly predictable days in advance of the aggressive action. Something broke down here and at the risk of not being PC the important thing is that the issues are discovered and learning takes place followed by action. Not action to punish or lay blame, but to facilitate learning that changes actions. I am aware that in this area of the Eastern Appalachians, there are many retired firefighters and emergency personnel who would probably be willing partners in helping other regional professionals and volunteers in meeting the opportunities presented by a changing world. Collaboration, open thinking and creativeness are key. A good example of the kind of human factors that continue to get in the way of better preparedness and change for the good is the backlash in which one reporter from NC received when she asked tough questions of some officials. She may have chosen poor timing, and perhaps not the best method of tackling the issues, but nonetheless we need to start asking the tough questions without being so offended and then take a good hard look at the issues, and how they can be resolved. This should not be a time to blame and inflame, but to think and act wisely. We are facing some very large problems around our globe and in our own home communities, that will require some out of the box thinking and collaboration, some tough questions, and a lot of personal accountability review and growth. Tough questions like, Why did it take so long for community leaders to activate burn bans in spite of the extreme drought conditions, fuel loads, number of arson fires and the regional outbreak of fires, the social nature of this crime, and other related events. Why are there not more prescribed and controlled burns being conducted? Why is forestry both national and state not working more collaboratively with citizens and local fire departments to improve awareness and preparation? Questions are powerful tools, but only when we allow them to be asked, we receive them with an openness and willingness to be vulnerable, and seek to answer them openly and without fear of reprisal. Even this article seems to skirt around some of the issues and miss the depth of analysis it needs to effect meaningful change. I can only hope that the actions are being undertaken somewhere and by the decision-makers and leaders to think and act differently. For the availability of resources our local volunteer departments are doing a good job, but things are changing and we need to get out of the boxes we are in, and start critical thinking and creatively to meet the challenges of the future because they are rapidly descending upon us whether we like it or not.

      1. You said in your post what I have been thinking. This fire burned for almost a week, before it exploded into Gatlinburg. Those strong southerly winds had been forecast a good two days before the fire broke through into the developed areas. What were the emergency managers of this county doing/thinking at this time? We have a mountaintop cabin about 50 miles south of this area. We were there from May until early November. It was the hottest summer we ever felt. It was also unbelievably dry. This is one of the wettest areas in the entire US, and when you do not not receive a drop of rain for months on end, you know something bad is going to happen. As it was, there had been brush fires burning in N Georgia and Western NC since October. Emergency management should have been all over this from the very beginning. Why the complacency? A voluntary evacuation should have been issued at least 36 hours before the fire exploded. A mandatory evacuation should have been issued, at the latest, Monday morning, with “reverse 911” calls, as well as loudspeaker equipped vehicles. When you have an active, non controlled fire, an area in “exceptional” drought, late fall vegetative conditions, and southerly winds of 40 to 60 MPH forecasted, you do not need to be a nuclear physicist to realize the potential (probability) that a catastrophic fire event is right at your doorstep. An in depth investigation should be launched and the (ir)responsible parties identified.

      2. I was in my cabin on 28 November and barely made it out alive. I spent two weeks in the area after the fire to inspect my property and ascertain where my wife and I would go from there. I remember a news A day or so later where that fire chief of the Gatlinburg stated that they knew on Sunday that it was predicted the fire would hit Gatlinburg proper by 11 AM on Tuesday morning. Why did they wait until Monday to do a voluntary a evacuation or were the city father is involved in the decision not to panic the thousands and thousands of people still there for the Thanksgiving holiday. I have an Gatlinburg address but the county services my street. When I crawled my way up Pinecrest Drive to Wiley Oakley through dense smoke, I saw a Gatlinburg pumper at the top of the hill. I told him my home was on fire and he said they were evacuating everyone,then. Asked if I knew if there were any other people down in that area. I told him there wasn’t when I got there at 5 o’clock but I could not even see driveways on the way up. I have to assume that the city of Gatlinburg felt that since my road was county property that I was on my own. If I had even been in the bathroom or downstairs I would’ve died . They had no sirens or Claxons blaring, no shouting to evacuate thru their grill mounted speakers. Other than the way the police were able to evacuate 4,000 people from Gatlinburg with little notice on Monday evening, everyone else involved did a very poor job. A true lackadaisical response. There will be legal repercussions because of incompetence.

      3. I was in my cabin on 28 November and barely made it out alive. I spent two weeks in the area after the fire to inspect my property and ascertain where my wife and I would go from there. I remember a news conference A day or so later where that fire chief of the Gatlinburg stated that they knew on Sunday that it was predicted the fire would hit Gatlinburg proper by 11 AM on Tuesday morning. Why did they wait until Monday to do a voluntary a evacuation or were the city father is involved in the decision not to panic the thousands and thousands of people still there for the Thanksgiving holiday. I have an Gatlinburg address but the county services my street. When I crawled my way up Pinecrest Drive to Wiley Oakley through dense smoke, I saw a Gatlinburg pumper at the top of the hill. I told him my home was on fire and he said they were evacuating everyone,then. Asked if I knew if there were any other people down in that area. I told him there wasn’t when I got there at 5 o’clock but I could not even see driveways on the way up. I have to assume that the city of Gatlinburg felt that since my road was county property that I was on my own. If I had even been in the bathroom or downstairs I would’ve died . They had no sirens or Claxons blaring, no shouting to evacuate thru their grill mounted speakers. Other than the way the police were able to evacuate 4,000 people from Gatlinburg with little notice on Monday evening, everyone else involved did a very poor job. A true lackadaisical response. There will be legal repercussions because of incompetence.

  2. Thank you for this excellent synopsis. It would be interesting to understanding the impact of excessive fuel from dead hemlocks, killed by hemlock wooly adelgid (together with the lack of moisture typically found under a mature, live, shady hemlock canopy, even with the extreme drought conditions) had on this fire. We probably won’t want to attribute 14 deaths to a non-native insect infestation, but in the end, can we say it exacerbated the situation?

    1. Hello Jon, for what it’s worth, I did some hiking in the Greenbrier area of the GSMNP back in October and didn’t notice many dead hemlocks, although The Chimneys area may be different, which I haven’t hiked in years. The amount of dead Frazier fir and Spruce trees, caused by similar non-native infestation, is dramatic on Newfound Gap road, but mainly past The Chimneys at higher elevations.

      1. Yes, some the ridges connecting to chimney-tops had dead hemlock stands. All together this was the absolute worse place to have a fire at almost the worst time, save it was lucky to not have been a few weeks earlier. As a mountain boy who loves the harshest terrain even I couldn’t imagine trying to run a fire line in this area. The steepness here is epic, the only way out of valleys this steep is straight down or up, your lucky not to hit a waterfall. Also, lots of hills in the area washed to bedrock by cloud burst and slides. Everyone should also know that this area is characterized by mountain laurel, in some areas nearby its so thick the only way through is on top it or if your lucky under on your belly. It goes for miles, I’ve pushed as hard as I could straight down and only managed 1/10th mile an hour on the gps in a few such places.

        This year has been crazy, with so many fires happening in Autumn. Lots of fires getting controlled, crews pulling off and the new fuel falling and all back ablaze. Had this fire+wind storm happened 3-4 weeks earlier it would have been exponentially worse, lots to be thankful for as we morn with TN. Our forest service guys have been very busy with hand efforts, running dozers in our hazardous terrain and with aircraft. Thank all of you.

        1. Well said, the terrain here is different than a lot of places, even out west. It is very hard and slow to navigate through laurel stands and the thick Tennesee “Barbed Wire” Briar patches. One question I have not seen asked is why any adult would have witnessed children playing with matches and lighting fires especially under the obvious conditions in this situation and 1. not taken immediate action 2. Instead simply took pictures on their phone, 3. Waited a month to report this event and turn over the pictures they took to forestry officials! What is these adults had taken immediate action to correct and intervene in this unsafe behavior by children. Like I said this is like so many tragic events, a chain reaction of events that all contributed to a disastrous outcome, because of actions and inactions that were not questioned or corrected at many steps of the way. I always come back to that “groupthink” mentality, the ladder of inference, the been there done that mode, the failure/fear to act, and that’s how we’ve always done it thinking; all part of how our unconscious brain works without our conscious intervention and critical thinking skills. All without the “but why” reflection, cause and effect analysis, drill down technique and the inter-relationship effect. The learning system of resolution. That said, it is always easier for those outside of the forest to see the big picture then those who are standing inside the trees down on the forest floor. Why the Monday morning quarterbacks seems to always get it right, while those in the game make the errors and the scores, winning and losing.

    2. I can tell you that within the week prior to this fire in the Greenbriar section of the GSMNP, I hiked on trails rustling through leaf litter that came up to my mid shins. With the drought conditions this would have acted as a flammable liquid would with explosive ignition and then been carried easily by the prevailing strong winds. There was much deadwood on the forest floor, including the Hemlocks and other species both down and standing dead.

  3. I think anyone that is from this area could see this could be a very dangerous fire from the first day!! You cannot sit and watch a fire in the mountains this close to a town and not call in lots of HELP!!! That should have been done over Thanksgiving! We had no significant rain in 2 months!!! Then the wind comes!!! The park should have been begging for help and putting out warnings all week end!!! Who ever was in charge should loose their job!!! Common since would tell you a mountain fire in wind and drought would move very fast!!! People lost their lives and homes because no warnings!!! Where was all the HELP TO PUT THIS FIRE OUT A WHEN IT STARTED????

    1. Sandra, I agree. We were there on Thanksgiving week-end. This fire was supposedly set On November 23rd, we were hiking there on November 25th, they had the trail blocked off closer to the top of the Chimneys 2, however we made pictures of the fire and it and the picture shows the smoke going straight up in the air, no one was there and it didn’t look like they had done anything to contain it. The news media started out just like the city news conference people leading people to believe the fire that burned everything occurred on November 28th, not true. We left Monday the 28th around 10:30 A.M. we could smell smoke but our home was fine and so was all of the rest of them in Chalet Village North. That night after we arrived home we started getting text from friends showing fires at the Park Vista Hotel, then one from our neighbor’s across the street, he lives in Knoxville called and said he had been there at 5:30 P.M. this was on the 28th and when he left it was smokey but everything was still fine. So sometime during the night as we now know everything burned down. A friend that owns a rental company there said that about 90% of the homes in the area which leave them 10% they can rent or sale. So this has affected everyone in the area in one form or another. I realize the City of Gatlinburg is open and ready for business and business is booming, that’s good for them but it doesn’t help those of us that lost their home. This was part of our retirement plan and now all we have left is a lot, we lost a lot of money that we will never be able to recuperate. We do have insurance however based on the prices for clean up there it won’t go far enough to build back. We have turned in a claim but still no word on a settlement. If the Park Service had done there job in the first place and City and County leaders would have stepped in and done something this could and would have been prevented. They didn’t and now its the property owners problem, they haven’t offered any clean up assistance, free dumping fees, no permit cost to rebuild, and certainly no financial help. We applied for the Dollywood assistance and FEMA and can get neither, I’m not sure who they are helping but for us and our neighbors we aren’t getting anything. This would help the owners defray some costs so they can rebuild. This should be placed firmly on the shoulders of the Park Service, Cassius Cash, Superintendent and the City and County. They just sat back and watched it burn. Of course Dollywood and Gatlinburg was virtually unscathed. If they had taken action the day it started instead of now using the excuse of the rough terrain, yeah it is but so is most mountain areas. After the fact they called in helicopters to dump water on the fire which is what they should have done in the first place and didn’t, WHY NOT? I’ve been told by others that they were waiting for the rain to move in based on the forecast and it didn’t arrive when they expected so in the meantime they did nothing. This Park Ranger was appointed to this position in December 2014 and he took office in February 2015, so in a span of one year and nine months he managed to let the place burn and we have owned property there for 32 years and nothing remotely like this has ever happened. We have had dry conditions in years past and there has probably been fires in the past and nothing like this ever happened. So because of his and other incompetence property owners are paying the price. FEMA did say they would give us a low interest rate loan, we don’t want a loan we worked hard and paid it off and don’t want to go in debt to rebuild! Dollywood flat out refused to even consider we needed any help and also tried to shame our neighbor to discourage home not to take it. Even though they are showing people receiving checks the day they apply, this was not the case for him. I wish some barracuda Attorney would take this on and represent the property owners in a lawsuit to try to recuperate some of our losses, any takers? I guess they must think when you have to go up there to handle this mess they caused that you don’t need lodging, food or gas to get there. These so called means of helping people out is a lie. I guess they are helping the people they always help and the rest of us are out of luck. We shouldn’t have expected anything else, I don’t know what we were thinking. I wish this would turn into the biggest Court case in history.

      1. People who live in forested areas need to be aware of fire danger. It seems that not even people in western areas have learned that lesson very well, and now it is time for those with homes and property in the east to realize they are at risk too. It is not just officials who have not caught up with the new climate reality, it is the general public and those in the path of fire. Let’s look in the mirror before we are too quick to blame someone else.

      2. Shame on you. Hindsight is 20/20 and of course much coulda woulda shoulda is understandable. But outright blame? No. Do we need to learn from it. Yes. Blame, no. Conspiracy, no. Love your neighbors, yes. Honor those who have risked much to help, indeed. Especially our local emergency workers and the Park Service. Honor.

    2. We really need to stop being so quick to cut of the heads of people doing their jobs and instead insist that they learn from and make changes for the better. By being so quick to lynch people we have created a fear of decision-making and a paralysis of critical thinking. People need their jobs, and we all act based on the limited information, training and experience that we have and hopefully rely on others who have diverse backgrounds to supplement where we may lack. I would rather have someone on the job who has screwed up, erred and learned from the experience as I know that the chances of a repeat performance are lessened and for most learners they will progress forward with even better decision making skills. But it is good that you ask questions, and you should expect answers and a demonstration of learning, but you have to give that opportunity, just as you would want.

  4. Thanks for the in depth coverage.

    I agree with the earlier post that if this fire had been in Southern California or other areas subject to devastating fire if it would have been managed differently.

    Just looking at media coverage on the evacuation order public messaging snafu points out that this fire will provide many lessons learned for future fire managers.

    But…. a wind and weather event like they got, that resulted in fire spread that resulted the the state TEMA command center to have to relocate in the middle of the incident gives a picture of what they were dealing with.

    I think wildland fire managers should be commended that this fire did not result in a tragic firefighter incident like Yarnell Hills.

  5. Excellent information and supporting documentation. Thank you, Bill. Floods, tornadoes, severe storms, wildfires, mudslides, hurricanes, what else?, all present risks to humans and their property which require different degrees of political management and oversight in our various muncipalities to keep us safe or to help us recover if we suffer consequences when we aren’t kept safe. This fire was a terrible tragedy and would require tremendous foresight on the part of such people to have kept people from harm and property from destruction, in this case, because people needed to be aware of the likelihood of the imminent danger they were facing if they stayed in Gatlinburg on Monday evening and overnight. Perhaps a simple thing like calling for a Voluntary Evacuation from Noon on that day could have made the danger more obvious in light of the forecast for storm warnings with high winds for the afternoon and overnight. In addition thorough explanations could have been given for the reasons for calling for the Voluntary Evacuation and could have been published. Shelter locations could have been announced, especially encouraging people to take action during the daylight hours that day so that escaping in total darkness during an inferno of fire – or not having the means to do so – would not be forced on people, and they could make arrangements for their own safety. A safefy plan for people in the event of the many natural threats, would have to be determined ahead of time though because that level of decision-making rarely occurs in the face of imminent danger. As citizens we should be aware of all threats we face and expect our leadership to plan ahead as best they can. For now there is heartbreak – and hindsight – on the part of every one now. May all the people find peace and forgiveness in the midst of this storm.

  6. My wife and I hiked to Alum Cave Bluffs Saturday, Nov. 26, while the fire was small up on the Chimneys. I was surprised that we saw no one at the closed Chimneys parking area early morning when we drove by. We saw some trucks when we drove out late morning. I understand the excellent point made in the article that history in the Smokies area would expect less of a problem than out West. A year or two ago, there was a small fire on Rocky Spur on the Rainbow Falls Trail up Mt. LeConte. The excellent Park folks seemed to just monitor it, and it resolved itself. The extremely dry conditions in the area, though, should have raised the concern level. I am in my late 60’s and have never seen such a drought, or such low stream levels. It seems to me that the extreme wind was as unprecedented as the drought and the low stream levels. I would hope that we would fund the National Park Service much better so that cost-cutting is not so high on their priorities. I would also hope that we would figure out that such major climate disruptions as the recent drought in the Southeast are getting more common and that human action has helped cause, and can help cure, such disruptions.

    1. I agree, this has many players to blame and starts with Superintendent Cassius Cash and trickles down to the City and County. He should loose his job and be prosecuted for this mess he created. I also wanted to let everyone know that the City and County is an example of nepotism at its finest. This would explain why they are all covering for each other. This come from long time residents, The prices we have been getting should be considered price gouging because that is exactly what it is. Its always been this way so you have to watch who you deal with, this is why the City and County need to clean this up, this would bring down the prices of these people with signs up everywhere for clean up. Once again the County and the City is sitting around twiddling their thumbs and doing nothing just like they did when the fire started and they could have contained it. I can picture all
      of them backing up and saying this isn’t our problem we are carrying on just like always. So property owners are left to deal with everything and if we had the power we would have done something like worrying the crap out of all of them until action was taken. That’s exactly what I plan on doing and recording the calls so that if they don’t take action they an explain to the public why after getting all of these calls with people pleading for them to take action.

      1. Kelly you are right, NO Help from City or County in the clean up…..SOS home owners responsible for all.. In all the Disasters I have worked in Texas, FEMA reimburse City or County for debris pickup. But all sitting back and doing nothing to help. Yes my house burnt along with 520 others in North Chalet Village, village no longer but all foundations.

        1. Kelly, Lloyd and anyone else that had home and/or businesses losses from the fire, tell everyone involved to write and/or call the governor’s office about what is going on. The public cannot sit on their hands and expect anything to change. We, the public, have to be activists for our own safety, the very safety that public officials claim to protect. Things don’t change unless people stand up and make them change.

          It now seems obvious that no housing development should have only road in and out. Yet if no one raises cain about it, things will be rebuilt with no regard for such safety factors. Stupidity is as stupidity does. Which is why human history keeps repeating itself over and over.

  7. Thanks for the good fact based, solid coverage of the events leading up to the fire. From my back ground in fire, safety and as a fire investigator I see the development of a chain of multiple, unusual and totally unexpected events leading up to final blowup. I’m sure there will be lots of finger pointing, name calling pushing for blame and then legal actions. And no doubt books both factual and not on this event. The power of nature is awesome and often far beyond our ability to predict and react to in a timely manner.

    1. I think 6 days should have been plenty of time for them to “do something” we now see what inaction causes, don’t we. Unfortunately its the home owners that are taking the hit and I think it should be them. This isn’t finger pointing it’s the simple facts of the entire situation like it or not! This story I’m telling is all factual you see I have a problem with anyone exaggerating events as well as lying so I tell the truth regardless of how unpopular it may be. The multiple chain of events you refer to is also simple, two juvenile delinquents set the fire, the park service knew it existed and they did absolutely nothing to put it out. If the superintendent of the Park Service couldn’t see what the consequence could be then he was not qualified for the job and after reading his BIO he was never qualified and this is what we get. The blame is as simple as the nose on your face we have family that is firemen and friends that are and they too are trained in fighting fires and if they had contained it all of this wouldn’t have happened. So who would you blame the people that died, wildlife and homeowners. I don’t think so they were the people in charge not any of us and they didn’t do their job. I think that’s pretty cut and dry and yes its their fault that they didn’t at least try and do something. I hope they end up being involved in the biggest lawsuit anyone has ever seen! I think that since its been brought to attention that nepotism shouldn’t be involved in these positions because when it is you have people covering up, like a cat trying to cover up poop!

  8. I’m sorry but that initial fire management at the outset was atrocious. Watch the pride and ego firefighters: you’ll never outmatch God’s elements. Humble yourselves to the Lord and seek HIS divine help. Then and only then will He let you effectively manage His creation that He has allowed you to be a part of for a short time.

  9. On November 11 some hikers found a fire built in the middle of the trail on brushy mountain trail. Which is pretty near chimney tops. They felt this was an attempt to start a forest fire and it was reported to officials. At least that is my understanding.

  10. Classic “Swiss Cheese” risk management fire management failure–have we as a profession learned anything since South Canyon, Yarnell and now Chimney Top 2? This time it is not firefighters but civilian deaths. Will there be an independent, non-federal agency, through,unbiased, unedited final incident management and serious accident investigation? Will some folks be held accountable for actions or non-actions related to this wildfire incident? Will the Firefighter Safety “crutch” of the last twenty plus years be the political linchpin to justify fire management strategy and tactics employed by the GSNP? Will the NPS Fire Management leadership at the Regional, NIFC and Washington DC levels admit to some very poor policy and decision making problems associated with the Chimney Top 2 disaster? Will Lessons Learned fade into distant short-term US fire management history archives once again. I am not holding my breath.

    Thank-you Bill for your through and in depth analysis of this wildfire’s chain-of events. Just a reminder to all, wildfires knows no boundaries, political beliefs, policy or management decisions– just simple laws of physics and science from S-190: Basic Fire Behavior— fuels, weather, topography and an ignition source plus extreme, well documented, long term drought conditions equals a recipe for conflagration, death and destruction. “Mother nature always bats last” Sad chain of events–once again.

    1. Chief Kurtz was right on target to compare South Canyon, Yarnell, and now Chimney Top 2. All three incidents have a common denominator. These fires were allowed to “cook” with little or no suppression action. Given enough time the clock will run out and the weather will either be in the fire mangers favor or WATCH OUT! Drought, fall winds, fuel moistures that haven’t recovered in months, what part of this disaster was a surprise. Was the fire that inaccessible on foot? Someone must have started the fire. If it was felt that people on this fire were at risk then don’t staff the fire. It is now time for aircraft (usually helicopters) to start washing the fire off the hill. Not the best plan but the safest. Many times this tactic takes commitment of over a week. Or in steep cliff terrain it just isn’t going to happen, no one on the fire. One option could be helicopter fire repellers to repel into the fire and make an assessment of risk. The use of smokejumpers could be part of the plan. Regardless, the appropriate aerial assault should continue. How about that for arm chair quarter backing.

      1. That’s perfect Johnny. All you left out was Howie Long jumping out of a plane on a motorcycle with a chainsaw running and you would have knocked that thing into last century! That and your wish to pay 50% income tax and there will never be a fire again!

  11. Bill thank you the excellent i sight and info that is hard to find publicly. My family lives 15 mi. from Gburg. I was on the phone w them that Mon. night at 9pm when mom said there was evacuation notice on TV. I said at the time thatvwas crazy, evac. notice should have been at 5-6 given the wind. She said smoke had been super heavy. I said Fed. Incident Mgt. teams had Lake Lure and Tate City evacuate when high winds were forecast. The diff. is TEMA didnt have the training. They couldnt get out a cell mssg. They lost phone coverage but didnt activate the Motorola wide area radio system. Many locals are saying the lack of evac was income driven. The mayor and many fireman lost their homes and businesses, not to mention the deaths. It took the governor to get the lack of evac into the open, as local gov was trying to keep it out of the press. They are having a press conference this afternoon so perhaps there will be more transparency.

  12. There was two contributing factors to this disaster. U.S. Park Service (again) and Thanksgiving.
    Interesting time line, fire discovered about 1730 November 23. Who is watching the back door? Thanksgiving Day Global Supertanker 747 is responding to wild fires in Israel. Flies north of fire (s) in TN. November 27th, 35 acres. This is a text book example of waiting for rain and not planning for WHAT IF! Good comments by all. I particularly liked Sharon Jensen’s after action summary. Who knows what the climate will bring next year. Maybe a second year of drought? Suggestion, contact Dolly Parton or representatives of her holdings and give her (them) the emergency phone line to Global Supertankers. Hire an independent fire behavior consultant to assist in PLANNING and timely response if conditions appear to be coming into (fire) alignment. Property owners still have the rights to protect their property. Excellent report Dr. Gabbert.

  13. Good article Bill.

    Let’s say the NPS put a crew on it day one in steep inaccessible terrain as they say it was in. Let’s see, that would probably consist of a GS-5 or 6 and two or three seasonal GS-4’s. One or two of those employees fall to their death because they shouldn’t have been there in the first place. Talk about finger pointing! I can hear it now, hasn’t the NPS learned anything in the past 10-20 yrs? What about firefighter safety? Who allowed this to happen? Fire those managers! Until you sit in my seat after 20 years of fire service, making decisions on where to send your firefighters based on their experience levels, you will then realize decisions have trade offs and sometimes Mother Nature over rules you. I’m not saying GRSM made the right or wrong decision, there is just a lot more involved then saying they didn’t suppress it promptly.

    1. Work for the NPS and see their Fire-is-not-our-mission outlook on fires and know that they will not be a aggressive enough, will not have seasoned fire staff, will not allow their staffs go out on fires and get the necessary experience. The park needs to share accountability in this situation, and all of us who have formerly worked in fire realize this. Jordan’s comments on the video indicates that their management was taking care to show how they were not responsible.

      1. Jack….

        You are aware that Bill Gabbert the Editor of Wildfire Today spent a large part of his fire carrier with the Park Service where I believe he was served on a nationwide Type I IMT. I knew him when he was at Indiana Dunes National Lake Shore. He and the other NPS staff there regularly went on out of state assignments. As a contractor I worked with a Dunes engine in Michigan MI years ago.

        “they” may be using too wide a brush to place blame. There are a lot of excellent experienced fire management staff working for the Park Service. Remember GSMNP is not Yosemite or Yellowstone with extreme fire behavior and a history of problems. “they” if you limit that to local staff might not have as much fire management experience as say Yosemite or Yellowstone. But if park management had been spending budget on fire management capabilities equal to those sites there would likely be criticism of that.

        Fire managers brought in resources from all over the country. Wildfire Today covered engines being shipped from CA. I saw Wyoming and Colorado engines being demobalized after containment.

        This is a complicated incident where many lessons can be learned. Let’s just be careful about who “they” are in our criticism.

        1. Well said, the terrain here is different than a lot of places, even out west. It is very hard and slow to navigate through laurel stands and the thick Tennesee “Barbed Wire” Briar patches. One question I have not seen asked is why any adult would have witnessed children playing with matches and lighting fires especially under the obvious conditions in this situation and 1. not taken immediate action 2. Instead simply took pictures on their phone, 3. Waited a month to report this event and turn over the pictures they took to forestry officials! What is these adults had taken immediate action to correct and intervene in this unsafe behavior by children. Like I said this is like so many tragic events, a chain reaction of events that all contributed to a disastrous outcome, because of actions and inactions that were not questioned or corrected at many steps of the way. I always come back to that “groupthink” mentality, the ladder of inference, the been there done that mode, the failure/fear to act, and that’s how we’ve always done it thinking; all part of how our unconscious brain works without our conscious intervention and critical thinking skills. All without the “but why” reflection, cause and effect analysis, drill down technique and the inter-relationship effect. The learning system of resolution. That said, it is always easier for those outside of the forest to see the big picture then those who are standing inside the trees down on the forest floor. Why the Monday morning quarterbacks seems to always get it right, while those in the game make the errors and the scores, winning and losing. It is interesting, though not a surprise that when so many diverse experts from across the country and sometimes other countries come with diversity of experience, backgrounds, and training; all come together to handle a disastrous incident, such as this, they do so and often are quite successful. It is this same type of think tank and diversity we need in reaching a host of solutions to our complexity of problems both in this situation and in all others.

    2. What about helicopters dumping water? Oh that’s right they did but it was after everything burned! Kind of like closing the barn door after the cow gets out, don’t you think? People that I know said that not implementing fire suppression is exactly what they should have done, so we can agree to disagree. I bet someone of you one here would sing a different tune if you loss a big chunk of your retirement because of someone incompetence.

    3. It is very steep terrain, I would estimate about a 65 degree incline, but it is not easy to “fall to your death” there. The actual clift’s are small and easily avoided. It would make suppression efforts difficult, but a fire break could have been constructed around the original slow-moving fire in the early days. Once the winds came on day 5 or 6, there was nothing anyone could do.

      Black Swan event…

  14. Just a quick comment per above posts. NPS manager Cassius Cash said the NPS didn’t have the authority to order an evacuation (how about recommending a pre-evacuation status so the public was ready to evacuate if needed?). The timeline of when NPS requested additional help was unfortunately too late for help to arrive before the firestorm hit. The perfect firestorm.

    By the way, the drainage to the northwest, where NPS had placed their line, is .2 mile and ~1,000 feet vertical (77% grade) of mostly weathered rock. The Chimneys functionally act as the head of a canyon leading directly to downtown Gatlinburg.

    Considering the record of wind gusts between 5-6pm and that the fire had jumped US 441, NPS calling Gburg Fire Dept. with a notice that evacuation is imminent would have been prudent. Instead, the city ordered evacuation of the neighborhoods nearest the NPS day use area that was on fire (Mynatt Park and others). Yet, at that very time, citizens were asking city employees and fireman if they should evacuate (well documented in the local news). They were told “No, we have it under control.”.

    In my eyes, TEMA should have taken control of the situation and ordered evacuations before sunset. No pre-evacuation notice was sent so citizens could be ready to depart. The 6pm and 7pm newscasts could have been leveraged by TEMA to order an evacuation then, before lines went down, power went out and cell towers on fire.

    At the big forest fires in NC and GA, where the federal incident management teams were located, the Incident teams ordered pre-evacuation prior to the arrival of a cold front when strong, gusty winds were forecast. The notice went out to people within 10 miles of the fireline. Most of those people got out of the pre-evac zone just to be safe and watch the fire at a distance.

    I was near Gatlinburg until Saturday prior to the fire, visiting my family. We could see the smoke. We had hiked to the Chimneys for the view many times – it was easy to see the wind being funneled down from there to Gatlinburg just like an invisible whitewater river. I looked at the NWS Forecast Discussion and told my sister “They should order pre-evacuation before the wind gets strong.”

    Monday I was surprised to look at the Knoxville News and see nothing about evacuation notices. That is when I said to myself “Where the hell is TEMA?”. What are they doing?
    They had access to the same fire flight info from Sunday’s flyover that other agencies had. They had the same weather forecast information. They got info from NPS about the fire spreading. Yet no one made a move.

    Thought among the locals is that officials didn’t want to lose the post-holiday weekend crowd and revenue. In fact, Monday afternoon several rental agencies were telling reservation customers to come on to Gatlinburg (news documented). Everyone knew how dry it was. Even life-long locals said they had never seen rhododendren wither up before. TEMA had the power and authority, yet did nothing until Hell was at their door. Their lack of extended skill training is apparent.

    The whole thing is unconscionable to me. A lot of personnel put forth heroic efforts to save lives and we should all be grateful for that. But those heroes should have never been in that situation in the first place.

    Thanksfully ATF agents helped TN Bureau of Investigation put their full resources at hand and arrested to two teenage idiots that started the fire. As they are minors, nothing else is known other than the Feds said the State could prosecute.

    I’ve learned so much on this blog over the past 6 weeks about how forest fires are managed and fought and I’m most grateful for that. The coordination and communication of the Incident Management teams is impressive. I hope they can train more local governments how to handle big wildfire situations.

    Kindest regards,
    James

    1. James. Great summary.

      Concerning the time the fire jumped 441.
      The Great Smoky Mountains National Park Facebook page reported (on Monday 11/28 at 1046am) that “gusting winds have caused the fire to spot across the ridges in the Chimney Tops and Bull head Ridge Area.
      That seems to be confirmation that the fire had crossed 441 early in the day. The fire was reported to be near the Twin Creeks Picnic Center at 1130.

      The three places the fire was stated to have been seem to line up pretty straight on the map. Guessing the fire spotted from the Chimneys, to Bullhead, then on to Twin Creeks area. With that all happening before lunch.

      Also I just came across a facebook page showing two views of the same “interchange” in Gatlinburg at 10:28 and 10:52. There is a marked increase in smoke and decreasing visibility due to the smoke.

      Also. I have seen local hiking pictures that appear to show two separate smoke columns on Saturday 11/26. Do arsonists typically work alone? If they do work as a pair, do they set multiple fires in the same area?

      Respectfully

  15. Great info/synopsis of the Gatlinburg/Sevier county wildfires. Just the mechanics of this devastating wildfire without any editorial comments. From just across the Smokies in Bryson City, N.C./Swain county. With the wildfires scattered across western N.C., we are lucky that, given parallel conditions of the wildfires that swept down the Chimney Tops into Gatlinburg ..i.e. strong south, southwest winds, extreme drought, low humidity..ect.., that something similar didn’t happen here.

  16. Jon Binhammer had an excellent point about the hemlocks. About 20 years ago, I hiked to Albright Grove, an old-growth hemlock forest near Greenbrier. It was gorgeous -huge, huge trees, open forest floor, very dark, very cool, very moist. I went back a few years ago and it was completely different. All of the big trees were gone (although younger trees had been treated and saved). There was lots of sunlight and lots of low-level vegetation – so much that the trail was overgrown and we decided to turn around. The coolness and the moisture were gone.

    OF COURSE the dead hemlocks (and spruces and firs) are changing the picture for fire danger. Please factor this in to your fire response in the future.

    1. Susan,
      You are correct in pointing out the dead hemlocks. The Incident Management Teams at Tellico, Rock Mountain and Joyce Kilmer/Slickrock fires had dead hemlocks near the trials knocked down (dynamite, cutting, other means – they’re still working on it along the AT). Hemlocks were mentioned in a number of daily updates on Inciweb because they are basically standing roman candles thanks to the spiral of limbs. Their soft wood holds a lot of moisture normally, but the conditions the past few months would have dried the limbs and outer layers up the trunk. Not to mention all the fallen limbs on the ground beneath them.

      I checked historical aerial photos on the USGS website because the die-off of the hemlock has been primarily over the past 10 years in the southeastern Appalachians. Hemlocks standout on aerial photos because the limbs grow in a spiral pattern around the tree. The big, dead hemlocks are light grey with a circular limb pattern as viewed from the air. There are hundreds of hemlock skeletons heading north from Chimney Rock. Some may be pines, but the vast majority appear to be hemlocks. Google and Bing maps give a pretty good idea of the expanse of dead hemlocks.

  17. Thank you for the timeline and the opportunity for comments. Difficult access to safely fight fire, lack of pre-blow up fire management, and extreme drought capped off by an exceptional weather event led to the July 1st, 1998 Farmton firestorm that burned through the rural community where I lived in east central Florida. Many structures were lost- thankfully no lives. No evacuation orders issued- If I had gone to work that day my two sons would be dead. The fire burned 38,000 acres of state managed conservation areas and private timber lands. After action reports with ample opportunity for community input led to better pre-fire management and intra-agency coordination of resources.

  18. NPS officials are looking to avoid tort liability claims, plan & simple. Their chronological order of events doesn’t match up with what some folks were observing – posted on social media. Compare the events to their fire management manual and contradictions are present. Second, why not attempt water drops and fire retardant – despite their reasoning it wouldn’t do any good. The high winds were forecasted on the 25th, 2016. It would be interesting to dig a little further on this. Nonetheless, it is obvious to some folks that the NPS did not act aggressive enough on this fire.

    Local folks here who have been involved with Park issues have an “old saying” about the NPS and their mismanagement of historic structures. Years ago, the NPS wasn’t maintaining the churches in Cades Cove of the Smokies. Bats were roosting in the church rafters and dropping feces onto the pews. Finally a local coalition was formed to put pressure on NPS officials to uphold their mandate on historic structures. Along with other Park issues like un-managed timber (very limited burns, mostly fields, not forested areas), we concluded the “saying” – demolition by neglect.

    This appears to be the case once again. Though the drought and winds were undoubtedly an act of God (Psalms 148:8; 1st Kings 17:1), NPS and other officials were not left ignorant. Wildfire experts have been warning local government officials about the potential for a fire of this magnitude for years. Did the fire have to be so devastating? Undoubtedly, the current management of our natural resources will come before the Judgments of the Almighty; for human lives were lost in this fire. When one seriously examines the events, these lives could have been spared – despite the power of fire and wind.

    1. Just wondering was it God who drastically cut the federal budgets for NPS, Wildland firefighters and other resources or was that Congress? How many resources were on how many fires at that time in this region and in others? Resources = $$$=taxes

      1. Good point, Ms. Horton. It is a truism that many people want all the benefits of government, but don’t want to pay for them. Hasn’t anyone noticed that friends groups are paying for major park infrastructure and various other projects that our Congress has failed to provide for?

  19. You may have a point regarding lawsuits, reported actions and actual actions. They were flying water drops on Sunday with the equipment available (National Guard choppers).

    I wonder when NPS actually put out a request for Incident Management Team support. It must have been Sunday, because a Type 1 team came in on Tuesday. The reason that is a point is IMT has experience far beyond any fire teams in east TN or GSMNP, especially with wind-driven wildfires. IMT issued pre-evacuation notices in GA and NC each time they saw cold-front winds approaching that could would threaten communities. People were ready to leave their home in 15 min. if/when evacuation notice was given. Given the wind forecast, pre-evac notice should have gone out on Sunday, Monday morning at latest. It appears that only TEMA has the authority to give a notice over multiple counties, but they didn’t take the lead until Monday night, after the fact.

    It would appear that in the end it comes down to lack of adequate training, lack of adequate rehearsals (shouldn’t they have known how to get messages out to the public via cell phone?), lack of knowledge of alternative communication systems (the Motorola area wide emergency radio system installed last year).

    Yes, there is backside-covering going on. I hope the governor’s investigation team finds all of the miscues AND gets proper training for all the different agencies involved.

    1. Well I can say that if TEMA announced right now and emergency message to my cell phone in the east TN mountains I would never get a thing. There seems to be many people who just don’t get that their are many areas in these mountains and in rural America that are no tech zones. There are zones that are simply are impenetrable by cellular rays and even satellite has issues. There are many many folks who even if cell service were functional could not afford it. These things don’t come with the same cheap city plans out here in the rural mountainous zones! This is just one more example of one more related issue that is seemingly un-connected until you delve into the issues deeply. Our government has been paying these communications companies millions in tax breaks and tax dollars to provide cellular and other affordable services to rural America, and they are failing to do so or providing the services at outrageous rates. We have border issues, at the local levels, states rights and federal rights that are still at issue, leadership silos, and rising political issues. Why were there so many wildfires being lit by arsonists all of a sudden this year? Within a few days or week prior to this deadly fire I heard a local major Knoxville radio station broadcasting a satire bashing HRC, Obama, the Federal Government among a few other controversial things, and how the revolution has begun including the incitement of burning down the place, this Knoxville radio station followed this rant with songs whose lyrics tough-ted and instructed the starting of fires. Now I can only imagine what children or adults with issues might have gleaned from this message being broadcast. It was so blatant and irresponsible of the media station to broadcast in this manner especially under the current circumstances. I get free speech, but if I yelled fire in a crowded theater when there was none and it contributed to death and injury I too would be held liable; my speech would not be protected! It just so happens that at this time hundreds of fires were subsequently being started all around the south! What really was going on here? Were these simply copy cat arsonists, arsonists with the most ridiculous stories to offer for why they lit these fires, or were they just cover-ups for something more sinister? A complex set of contributing factors no doubt, many that fell on deaf ears until they had to open eyes! Lastly, I would after this last election year never ever put stake into social media as any sort of official news, witness accounts or other fact finding mission. There is simply too much BS. It is to be considered, but verified by other means. Even the courts of law no longer put as heavy weight on personal testimony, as so much has been proven to so easily be manipulated and affected by a host of factors. There is much to delve into in resolving the causative factors of this disaster and the fire and park service are only a part of that equation. Climate change, human, social, political and economic factors are all also a part of this outcome, cause and effect.

  20. Another “factor” in the tragic outcome goes way beyond any mismanagement of the fire in it’s early period. That factor is the density of residential development, layout of roads, and approved building materials present in that area. From an all hazards POV large scale fire should have been recognized long before any drought conditions. Contingency plans for how to evacuate the entire town, regardless of the specific hazard, were not well thought out. Anyone who has toured the hillsides where most of the homes that were destroyed would know immediately how difficult evacuations would be. The deaths in this incident can be attributed to being trapped and forced to shelter in place. Without sufficient safe zones being created in advance each “road” was easily blocked either by fire or debris. And each structure became much more of a threat than the spreading ground fire ever was.

    I certainly hope the investigation of the totality of fire is not pressured to conclude prematurely. I am not convinced that all of what is considered to be the “Chimney Tops 2” fire is. The winds that Monday afternoon had knocked power lines down and early reporting made mention of separate ignition points in the residential hillsides. It is likely that spotting did keep the ground fire spreading into the areas where the homes were, and certainly on the southern edge of town it was the primary ignition source, but I am still skeptical that the homes to the north of town were ignited that way. One only has to imagine a single downed power line starting a structure fire at the same time the wildfire was approaching to understand how the great loss of property and life actually happened.

    I hope that EM officials and local planning officials reconsider what and how structures are rebuilt in that area. There are other potential hazards that make unplanned evacuations a danger in that area. For the region, I hope fire officials do realize that regional history makes little difference if the right combination of factors exists for rapid and extreme fire growth. Had they viewed the Chimney Tops 2 fire as though it was in the forested southwest I’m sure they would have issued pre-evacuation notices up to 48 hours prior to the wind events of that Monday.

  21. Jody, you have said well what I’ve wanted to say from my impressions made after the fire about this tragic situation. I appreciate how articulately you described your thoughts.

  22. Yes, good points Jody. One other consideration relevant to some of the previous comments about the aggressiveness or lack thereof in dealing with the fire in the first few days is the context of other ongoing wildfires. Over 3000 wildfires received Initial Attack in November in the southern Appalachians, many of which were still very active when Chimney Tops 2 started. Anticipating the fire season, firefighting resources (people and equipment) were brought in from around the Southeast and other parts of the country. Most of those resources were involved in those ongoing fires and unavailable for immediate response to a small fire, when it was still small.

  23. I am sure the Alum Cave trail up Mt. LeConte is going to be fine. There are a lot of downed trees and a lot of trails are temporarily closed to deal with them. A lot of chainsawing has been going on. The fire did not get up the valley to the Alum Cave Parking Lot, and LeConte Lodge is fine. I don’t know details as to the trail. The winds were blowing from the Chimneys more down the mountain than up toward LeConte.

  24. The dead hemlock had to have been of huge impact to the fire. Behind the Chimneys is Sugarland Mountain. I have for years pointed out to my students the dead hemlock all over the mountain. In addition, the valley above Gatlinburg, drained by LeConte Creek, has had enormous numbers of dead hemlock standing and fallen. Where the fire burned the valley floor, the desiccated hemlock burned freely and fully. Down hemlocks are mostly just gone. Standing dead hemlock burned up their trunks, to as high as 50 feet on one specimen I saw. Stumps burned into the ground and look like volcano caldera.

    1. Thanks Henry. That is great knowledge to share. Almost every creek drainage in GSMNP has stands of dead hemlocks (though some areas near roads had some hemlocks treated regularly to prevent adelgid infestation). I viewed aerial photos of that area over the past 10 years (on USGS website). The appearance of dead hemlock progression is astounding. View Google or Bing aerial photos of the past year – hundreds of dead trees with the tale-tell circular pattern of limbs stands out against the foliage.

      Henry, do you know the effect of the typical southeastern forest ground fires on the hemlock adelgid? From what I understand, the adelgid spreads from tree to tree via the ground, which is why young hemlocks with smooth bark are rarely infested with adelgid. The adelgid apparently needs the rougher bark of older trees to climb up the trunk to the greenery on which they feed.

      Digression from Comment Thread
      I’ve not had a chance to hike post-fire areas in the mountains yet to see fire’s effect on dead hemlocks, but what Henry said about dead stumps burning into the ground looking like a volcano rings true with what I’ve witnessed in mountain forest areas that burned decades ago. Circular holes in the ground spread around the forest floor for no apparent reason, no evidence in sight, no history of mining activity, most of the oldest living trees around the same height/age. Would be interesting to dig down to find the ash line (which is probably illegal on federal lands).

      1. One good place, James, to view an area after a devastating wildfire is adjacent to the Blue Ridge Parkway in and around the 418 milepost-the Graveyard Fields/ Shining Rock Wilderness areas. Both east and west forks of the Pigeon River. This area was in the process of being logged prior to the wildfire, (supposedly started by a logging train) of 1925. A high-elevation area that possessed the largest unbroken Spruce-Fir forest in the S. Appalachians. A few scattered, mostly Red Spruce, conifers are all that is left. The aptly named ‘Fire Cherry’, Beech and Mtn. Ash move in quickly after a fire, and through the yearly process of shedding their leaves, make it difficult for seeds from the Red Spruce/Fraser Fir/Hemlocks to make an effective seed-soil contact, thus when we lose one of these magnificent ‘evergreen’ forests, it truly is a tragedy in more ways than one. Not sure on how the Hemlock Wooly Adelgid infects our truly awesome and beautiful Hemlocks, but I do know that the Balsam Wooly Adelgid, the non-native insect that has helped to lay waste to the equally magnificent Fraser Fir forests such as found on the highest peaks –Clingman’s Dome, Mt. Mitchell, Mt. LeConte, is spread primarily, if not exclusively through the air.Though I haven’t been there in awhile, there used to be a stunning grove of Hemlocks in the Linville Falls area off the Parkway approx. milepost 316.

  25. Bill, correct me if I am wrong, but aircraft should be on the ground a half hour after sunset? That would mean your timeline of the “last water drop” would possibly vary 15-45 minutes depending on the helibase location and flight time to the dipsite. Not sure why it matters, but you offered such a specific time, thought I would offer info to possibly make it more accurate.

    1. If an aircraft will be en route to a lit helibase or airport, they can drop 30 minutes after sunset then fly to the lit facility. If their destination is not lit, they have to land there no later than 30 minutes after sunset.

  26. Visited Gatlinburg for the first time in Oct 2016. Finding out about the fire has hurt me almost as much as it did the locals. I loved the area, the town, homes, everything. Hopefully all of those affected will be able to begin again. May God look out for all of you in your time of loss. My prayers are with all of you. Resident of Western Maryland.

  27. Jeannine, what an awesome, in-depth and thoughtful response. Before the forest fires in the southeast this fall, I didn’t know very much about wildfire fighting management (other than a bit from a mountain rescue EMT friend in Colorado and a friend that helps with prescribed burns for Georgia Conservancy). Being an avid mountain hiker, I had seen evidence of fires from decades ago (Graveyard Fields being a macro example, but most prior fires in the forest were just like the ones this fall – floor duff and fallen dead wood).

    I learned so much from the Incident Management Team websites for the various big fires in the mountains (Cohuttas, Joyce Kilmer, Standing Indian, Boteler, Tellico, Party Rock, Pinnacle Mountain). I was truly astounded at how well coordinated the IMT teams are – they cover it all, firelines, backburns, aircraft, field communications, weather forecast, community information via meetings/Facebook/Blog page/Twitter with daily updates, pre-evacuation notices when wind events were predicted. And on top of all that, they have teams that stay and clean up after the fires, repairing dozer and fire lines to reflect natural terrain, knocking down trees that would be a hazard to hikers and hunters, repairing the roads that heavy equipment damaged. And the list goes on. In turn, the IMT teams greatly appreciated the community support given by the effected areas, such as throwing a free Thanksgiving dinner for the thousands of fire fighters far away from their families.

    To echo your statements, the information is out there, a model exists on how to properly do it – now it’s getting the proper training for all of the professionals involved and the public taking the role of accountability watchdogs.

  28. Very good pictures! Some of the seemingly inexplicable burn patterns are due to the wind driven nature. The one picture showing a PVC clean-out with charring on it is a very good example of a very fast, hot torch of flame blasting a relatively small area. You can see in the leaf pattern around it how a strong gust pushed up against the side of the house.

    I had heard that many of the stumps and rotted out trees had become abnormally dry because of the drought. When you see more of them completely charred but living trees seemingly untouched that is a sign of both underground burning and how much water the living trees still possessed. The immediate flash of ground clutter was followed by the much slower burning of the dead and down trees and stumps. Those probably did not finish burning for several days.

    How far from the Chimney Tops, as the crow flies, were these pictures taken?

  29. Jeff and All,

    This is a failure at the city, county and state levels, as well as top FEMA, leadership.

    I visited Gatlinburg on a trip to Asheville NC, in 1980. I have memories of the endless mountainous terrain, but the vast development that came into being, came well after my trip there. On the evening of the fire, I was monitoring tornadic storms across northern Mississippi because my family were driving to
    Tunica, MS, from our area near Kansas City, to arrive late evening, that day, in Tunica. I began picking up news stories of the fire in Gatlinburg from as the storm rolled east. I am a property owner in the Lake of the Ozarks, in Missouri, and oddly enough, had just returned from a trip to Branson, Missouri. On the night before I left for Branson, I had terrible nightmares of being caught in a forest fire in Branson. It was a very horrible dream and I had qualms about my trip before I arrived in Branson. Of course, the city of
    Branson is built into the mountainous forests of south-central Missouri, is a resort town, and a retirement community and entertainment venue. When I arrived in Branson at the hotel I was close to a fire exit, and frankly forgot about my nightmare. My nightmare depicted more what happened in Gatlinburg than – so far – in Branson.
    For almost 24 hours a day for 10 days or more, I read everything I could about Gatlinburg, and even found Wildfire Today during that
    time. I was struck by the daunting task of creating a viable fire-prevention plan in that area of constant tourist turnover, and the way it is laid-out. I am a management specialist and I understand how to plan, and implement risk-protection and safety in many kinds of settings, to address various threats to people. As I learned in the first 12 hours what took place there, I realized that there was almost no preparation for the risk of a fire, on any
    level, in advance of this disaster had occured. I felt like people had been robbed of the vital information they needed to make the decisions they needed to be safe. The miracle is that more people did not
    perish, but for the 14 who did,
    there is nothing that can address the failure of leadership at every level that contributed to that loss of life. Ever since Hurricane Katrina, I have doubted the ability of our emergency managers to plan for any aspect of, or kind of disaster, and the fire in Gatlinburg only supports my concerns. I heard a comment that people have the use common sense. I believe that many, many people are alive now because they did use common sense but some of the people who died, were victims of circumstances that they should never have faced if their public officials had been acting solely on their responsibility, first and foremost, and perhaps only, to protect and serve. …

  30. In response to Jeannie Horton:

    I fully understand the financial difficulties of the NPS and with firefighters abroad. God doesn’t cut financial budgets. Special interest groups and other self serving human beings with other priorities cut budgets. Also, for the last several decades, NPS policies have allowed these excessive fuels to build. They have tied their hands and resources through environmental forestry management. If you take a hands off approach with minimal management and indirectly Play God – look out. We are to be stewards of the land. That doesn’t mean excessive chainsaw mania; but it doesn’t mean going to the other extreme with the type of forestry management in some of our Parks and other public lands. Finally, the Superintendent has the power to call up all the resources which were available. By the time the troops were called in, it was too late. This lack of serious response is all too obvious. Take a look at the Chimney Tops Fire of Nov 14th, 2016 and you really might begin to question what really went wrong here. I would recommend reviewing Wildfire Today’s post titled: NPS releases information about the Chimneys Tops Fire 2 as well as the post Analysis of wind, vegetation, and air tankers before the fire burned into Gatlinburg. You have my utmost respect for firefighting; and I’ve recently addressed a firefighter who was an apparent “spokesman” for the local media patty-caking. I did blast him; and though I do have the utmost respect for his firefighting endeavors; it it disheartening to see someone with this apparent degree of experience claim this Chimney Tops Fire – look at both fires – was unpredictable.

    Tommy

  31. Regarding the Chimney Tops Fire of Nov 14th, 2016

    Below is a GSMNP Facebook link:

    https://www.facebook.com/GreatSmokyMountainsNPS/posts/1236286613095333

    The 2 juvenile defendants have been charged with the fire of Nov 23rd, 2016; but there has been NO apparent media release by officials and investigators as to whether these defendants started the fire of Nov 14th, 2016? If the defendants didn’t ignite the 14th fire, who did and is this 14th fire under investigation? Did the 14th fire discreetly burn in the duff amid rock cervices? Was it ever fully suppressed? So many unanswered questions? So whether the defendants started the 14th fire or not, a close examination of this Facebook press release indicates the fire apparently started on the 13th; and yet a social media photo post claims the 12th – clearly showing a lack of response once again in fire suppression by the NPS.

    Tommy

    1. Tommy.

      I was in the area hiking November 21 and there was no smoke coming from the Chimneys area.

      I would like to know if the same two kids are also responsible for the first Chimney fire?

  32. Thanks Calvin,

    I realize some of my questioning is speculative and yet legitimate. Why hasn’t the NPS mentioned this first fire of the 14th? Would the apparent 24 hour plus monitoring bring into question a lack of response to suppress the fire considering the exceptional drought and excessive fuels? Once again, can fire discreetly smolder in the duff amid rock crevices?

    Oddly, some folks that posted photos of the fire of the 23rd in its early stages have either pulled the blogs or the material cannot be accessed. GSMNP Facebook has pulled comments, photos, and replies as well in regard to the 14th fire. It is no wonder that the people do not trust Government. What is unconstitutional here is that if this first fire of the 14th is under investigation, then certain parties have committed obstruction of justice.

    Nonetheless, your observations on the 21st indicate that no signs of the 14th fire were present; and if the NPS did fully suppress the first fire, their timeline was undoubtedly non-aggressive to do so. Apparently, when the second fire was started by the defendants on the 23rd, the NPS assumed they could handle the 23rd fire like they did the first fire of the 14th. That didn’t work out. Unfortunately human lives were lost and hundreds of folks have been displaced.

    Tommy

  33. Our responses to this fire event have included comments with blame and fault-finding as well as a suggestion that we investigate in order to learn for future decision-making. I would like to insert the word, accountability into this discussion. Learning for the future is important if it includes changes in policy and procedure. But from what I have read the failure in this situation was in following procedure, so what can be added to have averted this fire and its terrible deadly consequences?

    There should be accountability for those in charge, in every arena of governance and responsibility and at every level. Frankly people should lose their jobs and fault should be placed on their shoulders.

    They should not be excused because they did not escape the consequences – this time – of their lax policies and their actual failure to follow the procedures they should have followed. They were asleep at the wheel. Period.
    Being asleep at the wheel is no excuse. Period. They need to be accountable for their inaction, and action. They had their moment in history and did not rise to it. Instead 14 people are dead, many are injured, 2000 structures burned, loss is now a pandemic. I am astounded at the amount of information, expertise, warning, and awareness of imminent danger was present and available in this situation. But instead great risks were taken through basic inaction and the consequences were disastrous. These are the facts and simple truths that should not be ignored. I can name 14 people who deserved much better! Holding the responsible people accountable is the only course of action that honors what was lost. The two juveniles who set a fire are not alone in this. This goes all the way to our Congress and irresponsible, blind, budget cutting exercises. Who can or will hold them accountable for their part in this tragedy? Who will accuse and then fire then? It certainly should be addressed, by We, the People. Whose else is there?

  34. Very well put Mari. The governor needs to hear that, as well. He promised a committee to study what happened and there has been no word since. Where is his accountability?

    Even Congressman from east TN and western NC need to here it.

    The one thing I noticed over the fall was that the National Forest Service held themselves accountable, called in Incident Management Teams from all over the country with big wildfire experience and those teams got it done. Not just putting out the fires, but restoring the forest and trails afterward. Impressive.

    I’ve ranted about the comparison to how Chimney Tops and Gatlinburg was handled by GSMNP and TEMA. Amazingly, some locals have whined about Knox News and Wildfire Today pointing out facts and timelines while ignoring the fact that it was Congress that cut the National Forest and National Park budgets. It was Congress that adjourned for the holidays without passing a bill to fund forest fire fighting efforts. Those people have their head in a hole, a burned out tree stump hole – the very definition of ignore-ance.

    I’m totally with you – accountability. Only we, the people, the voters, can force change by raising our collective voices by repeatedly demanding the governor and Congress take action now!

  35. In response to Jeanne in regard to Kelly Morgan’s comments:

    It is the duty of the American people to honor and respect and obey the Laws of the Land unless government becomes a dictatorship to basic rights and freedoms. Case in point is our European religious history.

    When human death is involved, there should be accountability, even if there is unintentional negligence.

    Teddy Roosevelt, who as you may know, was instrumental in establishing our national parks. There is an old saying he is known for: When government cannot accept criticism from the people, secular authority is no longer a democracy, but a dictatorship (paraphrased). Our local congressional representative will be the first to confront the Park Service for numerous shortfalls, bias agendas that cater to special interest groups, and a host of other issues to where the NPS serves itself more so than the people. It is the duty of the people and Congress to maintain and voice our concerns and opinions to where check and balances work. Unfortunately this isn’t always the case.

    This is as far as this subject needs to go; for the objective of this site is in regard to wildfire. However, an event such as the Gatlinburg fires undoubtedly leads to a can of worms that some folks would rather just sweep under the rug. Let’s just live in denial, honor the government no matter what; and allow history to repeat itself with numerous secular and religious dictators.

    Kelly Morgan’s comments may have been harsh and offensive to some folks; but when government builds a wall; sometimes it takes a loud voice to get their attention.

    True, our firefighters and 1st responders put their lives in “harms way” and we should respect them; and yet distinguish these folks from officials who are undoubtedly making bad calls/decisions.

    I would suggest that you read over Bill’s articles on this site regarding “NPS releases information about the Chimney Tops Fire 2” and “Analysis of wind, vegetation, and air tankers before the fire burned into Gatlinburg”. These breaks downs undoubtedly show shortcomings by officials.

    For folks afflicted by this tragedy, emotions running high should be expected; and it is understandable for Kelly Morgan to be upset. However, to expect her to “honor” the NPS is inappropriate considering reality and her circumstances.

    Tommy

  36. Very well said Tommy. It is unfortunate that sometimes a few seek to blame “someone” so quickly that they miss the opportunity to really get to the root of the causes for those issues in the first place. Emotions do get the best of us. We must as you say accept that humans are emotional beings and that goes for those who lost and those who stand to perhaps lose their jobs and livelihood often for making the best decisions they could with what was available to them at the time. I doubt that anyone other than the arsonists intended to cause harm in any way here, and knowing the ages of those who lit the fire, I doubt that they themselves had any idea of the potential outcome. Accountability is important and paying the price for our decisions is too. Often times in seeking to take out a person, the real root causes go unaddressed, and sometimes that includes some people taking the fall for decisions of others that were major contributing factors. Whether it be a resources, financial, training, bias, discriminatory, knowledge, failure to support, equipment or other systemic, human, data or other failures; we often seek to put the blame on any one or a few of the workers when the real root of the problems lies in systemic, resource or other human interaction issues and decisions made by others seemingly unconnected to the immediate event. For example politicians far away from the event make decisions regarding funding, resources and operations. Another example from my own experience which has been rocked by bias and blatant failure to receive appropriate support and assistance when asked for; causing issues to occur that were later simply blown way out of proportion with conspired lies in order to protect and cover up the real underlying issues and people. This leads to continuation of the same issues over and over because the root of the problems are not being dealt with, and therefore it is just a matter of time before another failure occurs and someone else becomes the “blamed one”, totally ignoring the real issues. You certainly got it right when you said that sometimes government does not listen and it takes a loud voice. I think this is more often than not the case. Too often the only voice that is heard in our society is money and the more one has the more they are “heard”. It is unfortunate that in our society people who speak out with a loud voice, or otherwise make waves for the privileged, get not only scorned but categorically destroyed by well planned out and financed design, often full of cover-up and lies and then propaganda is feed to the rest of us, of which we often take for gospel, when in fact is often not based on evidence or fact. I am hopeful that there are enough folks taking note of and keeping a watchful eye out for this situation, so that lies and cover-up will be vetted. When enough folks don’t take a vulnerable interest in situations and root out the evidence and real root causes to a situation, that is how cover-ups and lies live on, and the wrong people or wrong causes go unrooted. This eventually will affect us all at some point in time, as we too may one day find ourselves faced with similar circumstance. We would best not be blind until that time is upon us, as then it will be too late. We must open our eyes and ears and check behind each corner and crevice to see the reality and not just the story being told by a few. Most events have a series of issues that contribute to the outcome, the more catastrophic the event the greater the number of contributing factors. I am glad so many are taking a look at this situation, and hopefully never loosing sight of the intention to improvement and a better way. Not clouding the issues with the intent to take down a person. It is important to look at many facets, evidence and root cause studies so that the issues can be resolved. It is good to question everything, all is not as it appears. I am thankful so many are not only opening their eyes here, but taking action and questioning. I can feel for the service providers and the devastated fire victims. I have been on both sides of that equation before and still real-ling from my own losses that will negatively affect me and my family for life, because no one took the time to question or look into the story presented to them by those “authorities in charge”. Question, seek truth and evidence, get to the roots, with the intention to create and apply solutions, not simply hang someone; that is how we grow forward!

  37. Most excellently put, Jeannine (you are an exceptional writer).

    I’ve noted the contrast between how the Incident Management Teams approached the fires compared to the NPS. I’m not saying IMTs are perfect (and no doubt there are background politics involved), but they sure appeared to do an awesome job coming to the situation with a big view and didn’t hesitate to get the job done and keep the public informed.

    A couple of weeks after hearing no hardcore news from Knox News, I wrote the editor asking if the News was still doing hardcore investigation of the fire. He actually wrote me back on Christmas Eve, of all things, to tell me that they will keep after it. Then, a few days later they had the full timeline article and info about the NPS not following its own protocols.

    As long as there are watchdogs for the truth such yourself, it will be hard to bury. However, I still wonder why there has been no word from the governor about the post-fire review team he promised. Perhaps he needs a bit of prompting to remind him that the public will not forget what happened.

    Kindest regards,
    James

  38. James, thank you for that compliment! My writing comes from the heart! One thing I have learned is that the news media, especially in today’s world is just as skilled and often benefits from pushing their own agendas as well. If Knox media wanted to go after the NPS or someone else wanted them to, it is possible that even their timeline and investigation is slanted. it would not be the first time that political or other motivation caused biased reporting. In a time in which the NPS and all other government agencies are under attack and certain factions are seeking to replace all our government agencies with private for profit industry I would not ignore the possibility of anything. We may never really know the truth about this situation just as with so many other current and prominent situations. The age of information is both eye opening and scary, the potential for manipulation is astounding! The lines between reality and virtual reality or fake reality are so blurred. We all contribute to this phenomenon if not intentionally but unintentionally, simply by the design of our brains! Anytime that one side seeks to destroy the other as opposed to actually raise the issues, I would raise a red flag and wonder what the distraction is really trying to hide! Politics, as we know can cloud even a clear sunny day!!! Their are undoubtedly many many causative factors for any disaster, even the actions, inactions and unintentional actions can be like a snowball rolling down a mountain of snow!

  39. As I reflect on the comments regarding this fire, the articles and analysis, as well as any instance of leadership, decision-making and accountability, I have to ask…”How is it that one gets experience?” All those who have experience from say…the wildfires out west, were not born with it. They learned. They were taught with classroom didactic and hands on training, by sharing of lessons learned by others, and the best learning opportunity available, the best teacher of all; the actual experience itself. The successes, and the losses, the poor decisions, the mistakes, the error and the failures. The decisions that worked made us heroes, and those that did not changed us if we were allowed that opportunity. We need to hold, that experience though often shared, does not fit into every mold, because in the real world though some laws are universal, there is always changing variable and situations are never really exactly the same. So we can learn by others successes and failures but we must also not hang our hats on them either, because the story is as individual and unique as there are an infinite number of variables. There were and continue to be many deaths and fires that occurred in those “western” areas, and with those IMT “expert” Teams, that taught hard lessons, and enabled those people to gain experience and become the so called experts in the field. But there have also been many times when these so called experts were thrust into a different climate or situation and they too experienced failures. Case in point, the wildfires in Florida 1998, in which those “experts” were unaware of or underestimated the burning intensity of the Palm Oils from the Florida flora, which were as flammable liquid fires during those wildfires. I am just saying that it is not necessary to lynch someone in order to hold them accountable. You do not hang your child or throw them out for, with good intention making the wrong choices, you teach them and help them to understand the consequences. I certainly agree there are definitely consequences for our actions, for some more than others. People died and lost so much and that is absolutely tragic! I am positive that for anyone who gives of themselves to protect and serve will forever be haunted by that far more than anyone of us can expect to hold them accountable by lynching. They will be touched in their heart as deeply as anyone who has lost in the tragedy itself. An expert, a hero or success is the one who takes a vulnerable risk at making a decision and by grace the outcome is positive, by contrast is the person who makes similar vulnerable risk in decision-making and by grace the outcome is negative. These people both the successful along with the ones who erred and experienced failure, courageously risked being vulnerable in order to help others. They are as Brene Brown puts it, “In The Arena”; not merely sitting in a seat watching it or viewing from a comfort zone at home on the big screen but in the Arena risking everything for others. These folks do this often in situations in which they have little control over much of the situation or outcomes. Yes a lot is somewhat predictable, just as this fire, but not every aspect is, there are too many variables in the real world. There are “A lot of cheap seats in the arena filled with people who never venture onto the floor. They just hurl mean criticisms and put downs from a safe distance” Brene Brown. I agree that there needs to to be a change of attitude about climate change, wildfire potential in the east, an adaptation to changing conditions and a throwing out of the holding on to the been there done that, know all there is to know, seen this before thinking and the holding onto a world that used to be. We are emotional beings, we feel and we have the capability to think. Intention is important, even in a court of law, intention ways heavily on the sentencing. Also important is accountability, so is teaching, learning and experience, so is action, so is… on and on. It is not a black and white world, not a this or that, it is all encompassing. There is room for all to be as important as the other, and hold all of these ideals up at the same time, to honor and to debate. Our world is complex and it is a system of interacting parts, we all need to start thinking more globally (meaning systemic and how each part interacts with the other) in our processes and understand how each choice, decision and action we take personally and as a group affect all the other parts. Nothing happens in a vacuum. This country was founded on open respectful discussion, such as this which has occurred in this article commentary and blog comments. This openness which allows for both expression of feeling and diversity of thought and ideas will be what drives our ability to fix the complex issues we are faced with, and to grow as human individuals, groups and nations. This is the path to healing, and the way to light. This is how we all get better at what we do and are. This is the way to honor each other and to learn. People in our country must get this, because for all the overwhelming issues in our country today, they keep voting many of the same politicians back into office over and over and over again expecting a different outcome. Sometimes we win and sometimes we lose. Many are willing to allow the absolute open permission to some to behave as they will without question, but are unwilling to allow others the same room to learn and grow. What makes one golden and one not? If one is growing by experience you keep them moving forward as we all benefit from their learning and experience. It is so much easier to sit on the outside, pass judgement and sentencing in the name of accountability than it is to be involved in the event of vulnerability in action. What good does it do to lynch those who are learning and gaining the very experience we expect and seek? Will it change what has happened? If we are so quick to remove those who are learning from their experience, successes and failures, do we not lessen the potential to create and benefit from more experts who will have more knowledge and wisdom to apply to future events? Would it not be more beneficial to hold accountability by insuring that analysis of cause and effect and learning take place; that change is done where change is needed? This fire season is a perfect example of why we do not need to lynch and discard those who have erred but gained highly valuable experience in the process. We need a growing pool of resources who have gained knowledge and wisdom hat can be applied to future events, not to lessen the pool by throwing out those who failed but are not a failure. The more we let our selves be vulnerable and courageous in the face of tough situations, the more chance that we have that we will fall, and we will; we all will at some point if we take that risk to be brave and courageous. Will we fail forward? Can we allow room for others to fail forward? We need to question everything and everyone with the same tenacious veracity as the other, but we also need to allow for humans to be human, and engage in the process of learning.

  40. Jeannine, it’s obvious that you write from the heart, and you write so well it is indeed inspirational. I appreciate that fine quality of writing that expresses your thoughts in an easy to read yet structured style that makes sense.

    You’ve certainly added much food for thought. I do remember the bad fires in the 1990s in Florida and Colorado (I was in Glenwood Springs at a week-long seminar only a week after the Storm King Mountain aka South Canyon fire).

    Thank you for making a point of the fact that we are all human beings with faults by design – so that we need each other to succeed and survive.

  41. I have here a firsthand account of how a homeowner, who lost her house, lived through the days before the fire and through the fire. It is a primary source and illuminates some of the discussion topics that have been on Wildfire Today. It is written by Stephanie Sweeney, whose house was off the Spur between Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge. She has given me permission to share it on this site.

    “First of all I was very concerned when the wildfires started over in North Carolina, in some of the National Forest that border Great Smoky Mountain National Park. As the crow flies, that’s not far from Gatlinburg and I’ve heard of and read about how quickly wildfires spread and how far reaching they can be under dry conditions from drought. I know it’s good and natural periodically to let forest fires burn, but under the extreme drought conditions in this area, I was uneasy that fires weren’t being put out. We could smell smoke from the fires in NC for a month before the fire began on Chimney Tops. I began to notice people smoking while driving their vehicles when I would be out and about and they would flick burning embers out windows and sometimes throw cigarettes out windows. I was nervous about it.  Bob and I had discussions about what we would do if we were to be surprised by wildfires up Beech Branch Road with no warning.  We had somewhat of a plan but both agreed that if we had a warning or concern we would leave because of our location and our neighborhood has no fire hydrants.
    When the fire started on Chimney Tops I thought surely the National Park Service would take necessary steps to put it out quickly because of the sure danger of it spreading.  The smoke steadily became thicker as the days passed and friends were showing pictures of the Chimneys on fire. I was afraid to go into Park with boys. Stanton wanted to go but I was afraid to for several reasons.  
    We went to West TN for Thanksgiving Holidays and came back home to Gatlinburg on Sunday. As we drove in the smoke was no better than it had been when we left cabin, it was worse. Visibility was bad and it was hard to breathe as we unpacked our truck.
    The next morning, the morning of 28th, I took boys to school and went to a dr. appointment in Sevierville. When I came out of dr. office,  which is located on Middle Creek close to hospital, the atmosphere was eerie.  Visibility was so low that other car lights could barely be seen from oncoming cars. There was a yellow glow in the skies which has always been indicative of severe weather where we came from. There were ashes raining and that was very alarming to me. I ran other errands and stopped by cabin to unload groceries before picking boys up from school. When I got home our dog was sneezing repeatably  so I brought her in.  I turned on tv to see if there were warnings of any sort. No warnings of spreading fire, just radar and high wind warnings.  High winds were to start soon and rain was 5 hours away as indicated by radar. I had these thoughts: if fire spreads from Chimney Tops and starts coming towards Gatlinburg, people are going to be getting gas and getting out. There could be traffic jams. There could be falling trees.
    We could get blocked in by both.
    I left early to get boys and filled Stanton’s old Subaru Outback up with gas. I picked them up and came back home with plans of bringing truck back over mountain and filling it up because it was near empty. I thought if we were have to leave we could take both vehicles to our friends house to sit out the night.
    Bob had stayed in West TN after Thanksgiving, to work there for a few days before returning home so he wasn’t with us.
    When boys and I got back home around 3:45, the winds were beginning to pick up and branches were beginning to fall. Breathing between car and house was hard.  Bob called. He had been experiencing the high winds back West all day and was alarmed at possibilities as well. He wanted us to pack and leave. I told him I would call fire department in Gatlinburg across from Food City. A lady answered phone. I do not remember her name. I told her my concerns of fire, traffic, and falling trees blocking flow of traffic were there an emergency. She said ” I don’t think it’s necessary for you to leave home with children and dog at this point. Park Service has not issued any warnings and there are no active fires in Gatlinburg city limits.” I ask her if they had plans of issuing a warning if evacuations became necessary and ask her how they would do that. Back home in West TN, when tornado warnings were active in a particular area there were loud sirens that went off. She replied, “Mrs. Sweeney, to be honest we’ve never experienced circumstances quite like this.” I thanked her, hung up and told Stanton to go load Lady’s kennel. I called Bob back and told him I was leaving hurriedly and that I would call him when we had made it out of woods to Pigeon Forge. The winds were getting stronger. Limbs began to fall. The leaves that had hung on into late Fall because of lack of winds and rain for months began to rain from the trees in copious amounts and there were leaf funnels forming and it was hard as we ran from cabin to car loading Abram and Lady. It was probably 4:45 by this time. I told Stanton I wanted him to drive our truck up to top of mountain behind house to get it away from house and out from under so many trees. I told him we would come pick him up in his car. He told me he was scared to drive the truck-it’s a lot more cumbersome in the local terrain than his little Outback. I told him to go up and park in driveway close to where I wanted to leave the truck and that I would drive truck up. We both were winded, nervous, and running to grab one change of clothes, night clothes, and tooth brushes. We had loaded dog and Abram in car, out of smoke and told them to stay put. We were wearing bandanas wrapped around our faces at this point. I stopped him and said, “Stanton, we’ve got to calm down and go slowly getting out of here so that we don’t scare Abram and so that we can drive safely. I said a quick prayer for safety and we started up hill to leave our truck. It was very low on gas and fully covered with insurance. Stanton’s car was full of gas and only has liability insurance. I parked truck right beside a big mound of rip rap that Bob had dumped for lining the ditches on sides of our neighborhood roads, which aren’t “through” roads. It was hard to drive because of falling leaves, branches, smoke, wind, and nerves. I felt it urgent to get out of the woods.  The main road out of Gatlinburg is the Spur, which is the 5 mile stretch of Park Service Road that lies between Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg. It’s all in moderately dense forest that overhangs above the road. I had concerns about traffic once we got down there. I just assumed that others would be leaving Gatlinburg out of concerns similar to mine. There was a tree down on road out but we were able to drive around it. When we got to end of Beech Branch Rd., and turned onto Spur, there was no traffic but the winds were getting worse. It was shaking the car as we drove. We drove carefully and made it out of woods into Pigeon Forge safely. I called Bob, boys and I got a bite to eat for supper so we wouldn’t be a bother to our friends whose house we were going to wait out the evening. By the time we got to the Marshall’s house it was 6:00 PM and they were watching the news. The fire had spread to Mynatt Park in Gatlinburg, and people were being evacuated from neighborhood there.  We watched the news the rest of evening. Bob headed our way. The next morning we weren’t allowed to go check on our house because of fires still burning and impassable roads. We waited as the days passed until we could go and see if ours had burned.
    Bob and Stanton snuck around back roads and made it in a few days earlier than most and found what we were fearing. Our place was gone.
    I hear of those who didn’t leave until 9:00 that night. I don’t understand, but I don’t judge. I know for a fact that all humans are not as “tuned” into Nature as others.  I’m thankful to be tuned in. My boys and I do not have images of wildfires that we would have seen had we waited to leave home. I believe God was speaking to me early in the day on 28th and I am grateful for the ability He blessed me with to get out of Gatlinburg early.”

  42. Jeanne: I do not disagree with your thought process regarding some of the broad challenges wildland fire mangers have faced in the past thirty some years. However, fire–be it a wildfire, structure fire, flammable liquid fire or a a bi-nine campfire does not care or worry about budget cuts, staffing issues, political agendas, experienced or inexperienced decision making or other human factors. When the simple laws of fire physics and chemistry correctly combine, fuel, heat, oxygen, and in the wildland fire arena available fuels, topography and ideal fire weather conditions mix in “perfect alignment” plus given adequate TIME, a-bine unattended campfire, an arsonists match, or a slowly backing down-slope surface fire in leaf litter during a record setting drought will ultimately result in a disastrous conflagration. Any person involved in any sort of firefighting/fire ecology/fire control/fire management profession learns these basic fire physic scientific principals from day one–either from formal training or through hands on fire behavior observations .

    Fire-wanted or unwanted- is not a “warm and fuzzy” abstract thing it is often portrayed in today’s media and society to play around with. This is how civilians, firefighters, personal property and extensive environmental damage results. Humans will never be able to control or suppress all unwanted fires-structure, chemical or wildland. However, when adequate risk analysis, proactive contingency planning and decision making, real time fire behavior simulations predicting possible disastrous outcomes, humans may have a much better chance of containing, or controlling, or herding, or managing or all-out suppressing an unwanted or unplanned ignition. Many times, as has been thoroughly vetted during the analysis the Chimney Top 2 wildfire the ONLY option is an all out aggressive, “throw the world at it” initial attack from “air, ground and sea”. The facts are clear that this was not the appropriate action taking during the initial stages of the Chimney Top 2 wildfire. Civilians are dead, millions of dollars of personal property destroyed, millions of dollars were spent on containing the wildfire–the rains/snow finally suppressed it. Millions of dollars will be spent recovering and mitigating the after effects of this human caused and exasperated wildfire. Why?— because poor, inadequate human decision making allowing basic fire physics, fire chemistry and TIME to align resulting in avoidable death and destruction! Humans lost–fire won. People responsible during the initial stages of the Chimney Top 2 wildfire need to be held accountable for violating these basic rules of fire physics–period. The American public’s outcry owe that much to the those whom lost loved ones, disrupted lives, destroyed both human property and natural resources in Gatlinburg, Tennessee during the Chimney Top 2 wildfire, November, 2016. Accountability!

  43. My vacation cabin in Gatlinburg burn to the ground on November 28. That said I have been an avid backpack or in hiker who has done probably every trail in the Smokies many times over. I cannot count how many times my wife or I would find a fire smoldering typically from someone who flipped a lit cigarette and the brush when they were finished. Obviously spent no time in the military so they didn’t know how to field dress A cigarette and pack it out. We have also come upon many campfires that tent campers and others thought or extinguished but we’re back to a full burn with not adequate fire breaking around it. The town I live in in Kentucky has a $500 fine for tossing a cigarette out the window and we do not even have The potential for many brushfires. That mall is also rigidly enforced. Most of us are hopeful the two young man responsible for causing this fire will be severely punished however after all of the expert testimony to not only the Knoxville news Sentinel times what other periodicals claiming gross mishandling of the beginning of the Chimney Tops 2 fire by the forestry service as well as the Gatlinburg fire department I am certain that the Philadelphia lawyer that they have hired will use this in their defense and I would not bet that they will get a much lighter sentence as a result . I have my own opinion on what I would do if I ruled the world but I can guarantee you two people that would be looking for work very soon . I was in my cabin the night of the fire and if I had spotted it a minute or so after I did I would not be alive to type this right now.

  44. Tom, I want to express to you how sorry I am to hear about the loss of your cabin, what you went through escaping the fire, what you have gone through since the fire and what you are facing.
    These words are so terribly inadequate but I feel even worse not saying anything at all. There are thousands and thousands of people who feel as I do about your loss and the losses of so many people in Gatlinburg and the surrounding area. Most of us feel there was negligence but sorting it all out is not something I know how to do. I found this blog and am so grateful to have an opportunity to reply and also to become informed from experienced, caring people of service in the firefighting effort. I can only say that I had no peace at all whatsoever after the first word I heard of the terrible fire there .. I am broken-hearted over it .. I am trying to learn everything I can and hope to find an avenue to serve in this cause in some small way as most of you have and are serving in major, ways, risking your lives. I have wanted to learn because I don’t know enough to say much, but when I read your two posts about the loss of your cabin, and your escape, I felt I had to say, I’m so sorry, to you, and probably speak for many many others who did not find this blog and find an avenue to learn, listen and to speak. I hold you in my thoughts and prayers for healing and recovery … there are others who have posted about their losses on this blog, Kelly for one, and I did not give myself peymidfipn to say these words to them at the time .. I hope to remedy that starting now!
    .. bless you all!

  45. Thank you for your kind words and concern about our loss. We are still dealing but two of us or degree, the emotional loss of losing our beloved cabin but now we are in the rebuild mode. There will be time to consider legal and civil options later . Suffice it to say betting against individual as well as class-action instruments being utilized against local and federal officials would be as unlikely as betting that the sun won’t rise tomorrow. They probably feel they are fortunate and safe because they will not speak out on the topic until the criminal charges are completed against the two youth that perpetrated this fire but they would be foolish to do so as time just continues to churn the anger. What the kids did was extremely wrong and they should and will be punished for it but any Philadelphia lawyer work his retainer fee we’ll get these kids off with no more than arson and reckless endangerment. Council will utilize the 100’s of wildfire experts testimony that the forresty service and local fire chief should have thrown everything they had at the Chimney 2 blaze the day it happened and everyone and every resource they could use from out of state that could get there within 24 hours. They didn’t for one reason in my humble opinion: $$$
    Thanksgiving weekend is one of the 4 busiest weekends for Gatlinburg and the National Park. Just like the Mayor of Amity in Jaws.

    That said, we are now in the rebuild mode. Contractor will be on site this weekend with a subcontractor cleaning up my debris and really pouring my foundation and my logs will arrive within 15 days or more .
    We are excited to start new memories and get back on the trails.

    One thing I’d add: the county is allowing residents that lost their home to use their existing block or poured foundation as long as they have one of their local cemetacious experts “test” it and approve it. As one who has had experience and ready mix, concrete block, pavers, and pre-cast, one would be a fool to rebuild on ANY existing foundation that came in contact with temperatures approaching 3,000F. Even if the new construction doesn’t suffer from the eventual degradation of the old foundation, years after you have rebuilt and want to sell your cabin, due to prior disclosure malls when you tell a prospective buyer that your foundation went through the 100 year fire which burned your foundation at 1400 to 3000° F, only a fool would buy it.

    Thanks again for your touching reply. It is truly appreciated. Praying for those residents that have it far worse than I

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