Looking back at the fatal wildfire that burned into Gatlinburg

14 people were killed and 2,500 structures were damaged or destroyed.

Chimney Tops 2 Fire Gatlinburg tennessee

Above: Chimney Tops 2 Fire at 9:37 p.m. November 28, 2016 after it had burned into Gatlinburg, Tennessee. Screenshot from the Knox News video.

(Originally published at 11:04 a.m. MST November 23, 2017)

As the one year anniversary of the deadly Chimney Tops 2 Fire approaches, Knox News will be publishing a series of articles about the fire that burned into Gatlinburg, Tennessee on November 28, 2016 killing 14 people, forcing 14,000 to evacuate, destroying or damaging 2,500 structures, and blackening 17,000 acres. Part 1 appeared yesterday along with the video below that includes interviews with first responders and residents, 911 recordings, and dash cam imagery of the fire in Gatlinburg.

Among other issues that came to light about how the fire was managed, the video has an example related to the evacuation. At 7:12 p.m. on November 28 the Gatlinburg Fire Department Captain that was the commander at the time of the firefighting forces working the wildfire in the city, recommended that the single siren, intended to be used for flood warnings, be activated to notify residents and tourists to evacuate. It was not done. Twice more he made the recommendation, at 7:15 and 7:50, but the 911 recordings did not detect a reply. At 8:20 p.m. the Fire Chief ordered a complete evacuation of the city and at 8:30 the siren was activated.

The article has quotes from a piece that we wrote on June 13, 2016 about the decisions made by Great Smoky Mountains National Park personnel during the first five days while the fire was much smaller.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Erik.
Typos or errors, report them HERE.

Author: Bill Gabbert

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

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One thought on “Looking back at the fatal wildfire that burned into Gatlinburg”

  1. Thoughts (armchair). First out of the gate was hesitation due to the apparently small fire versus the cost of airdrops. That would be cost/benefit calculations by initial small footprint, not by threat potential. Yet, the serious conditions were well-known though – drought plus dead forest and a terrible terrain for ground teams, and ahead high winds forecast. With all that in place, there were plenty of people up the ranks who should have hustled out to take a look. If a First Responder actually had the idea that an air drop was justified by conditions, but hesitated, knowing the cost, that’s when the upper management needed to get out of office and confirm. A comprehensive study was done some years ago in MA about a persistent hesitation/reluctance of First Responders (EMT and paramedics) at accident incidents to call in the medical evacuation helicopters because of ‘cost’ worries. The study showed it wasn’t an extra cost to call in the helicopters and crews because these are already being paid for to sit around or not, but the First Responders hadn’t been informed by management to have a sense of that, so they passed on calling in air transport more than they should have. It’s just a marginal cost to pay for a bit more fuel if annual usage actually goes over budgeted projections. Everything else is already paid for.

    Second, it was sobering to hear how much dead forest thanks to pest/disease infestation was/is there in that greater forested area. Of all the roles for forest management to play that wasn’t done – containing and destroying the spread of tree-killing pests. (controlled burns and strategic cleared perimeters comes to mind first plus re-planting with other species.) Can think of two other places that have been not-managed to worrisome state. A lot of the slopes of the Shenandoah Mountains (Skyline Park) in Virginia are newer regrowth from what had been cleared homestead farmland years ago. So a lot of packed tall skinny trees that were never thinned. The tallest trees crowded the rest out so under the canopy in many places is effectively a forest of dead standing poles, never cleared. Then, there are stands of some of those bigger, taller trees that look alive and lush, but on closer inspection they are actually dead. The green canopy is from massive vines that choked them out. It’s very, very deceptive and many homes and weekend homes/neighborhoods have been built inside these areas with no clearing at all.
    The second area is quite shocking to see, it’s visible along – if memory serves correctly – Rte 160 in Colorado – miles and miles and miles and miles of hills and mountain slopes of completely dead forest – by some pest infestation, well-known to everyone apparently who lives around there. Terrible.

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