Looking back at the fatal wildfire that burned into Gatlinburg

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

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.

Sonoma County officials criticized for inadequate warning about approaching wildfires

A system that can send emergency notifications to every cell phone in a designated area was not used.

Soon after the Pocket, Tubbs, and Nuns Fires burned thousands of homes in northern California in the days following the October 8 wind event, local residents began asking why they received no emergency notifications on their cell phones.

The day before, all cell phones in Rincon Valley east of Santa Rosa loudly blared with a message about a child abduction in San Francisco about 48 air miles to the south, but the Amber Alert system was not used as the wildfires bore down on the densely packed communities in Sonoma County.

Photo by Jeff Zimmerman
Tubbs Fire. Photo by Jeff Zimmerman.

Officials did use two other systems, Nixle and SoCo Alert, to send messages to less than 35,000 cell phone users. Those programs require people to opt-in or sign up in advance.

But most residents in Sonoma County did not receive any notifications by phone as the fires approached between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. They found out as neighbors knocked on their doors or police drove around blasting sirens.

At least 23 people in Sonoma County died in the fires.

Below are excerpts from an article in the Press Democrat:

“I’m emotional when it comes to this, and I’m a rational guy,” said Patrick McCallum, who fled the fires with his wife, Judy Sakaki, president of Sonoma State University.

They burned their bare feet and ran for their lives as flames tore through their Fountaingrove neighborhood. By that point, about 4 a.m., the Tubbs fire, which started outside Calistoga 9 miles to the east, had been burning more than six hours. McCallum, however, was only awakened by a smoke alarm and the couple’s home already was on fire. The landline phone in the bedroom never rang.

The [Amber Alert] program is available to the Sonoma County Emergency Services division, housed within the county fire department. Emergency officials have said publicly they opted against using the program because they didn’t want alerts to go out countywide and cause mass evacuations that could have prevented first responders from reaching affected areas.

“In this rushed environment to inform as many people as possible, we were worried that notification would go out too broadly, and potentially clog roads,” Sonoma County spokeswoman Hannah Euser said.

But state emergency officials have said the system can send messages to smaller geographic areas.

Inadequate notification of residents also occurred in November of last year as the Chimney Tops 2 Fire burned into Gatlinburg, Tennessee. Fourteen people died as a result of the wildfires and nearly 2,500 structures were damaged or destroyed by flames that charred more than 17,000 acres in and around Great Smoky Mountain National Park.

Report released about wildfire that burned into Gatllinburg

Gatlinburg fire reportOn August 31 the National Park Service released the long anticipated report (12 Mb file) about the wildfire that burned from Great Smoky Mountains National Park into the city of Gatlinburg, Tennessee. Five days after it started on November 23, 2016, the Chimney Tops 2 Fire spread into the eastern Tennessee city killing 14 people, forcing 14,000 to evacuate, destroying or damaging 2,400 structures, and blackening 17,000 acres.

The strategy used to manage the fire was controversial because very little direct action was taken to suppress the fire during those first five days until a predicted wind event caused it to spread very rapidly out of the park and into the city.

The report was presented to the public during a live Facebook feed which you can see below.

One of the first speakers was Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke who reminded the audience that he served in combat and then mentioned some recommendations:

  • The National Park Service should be more proactive about removing “dead and dying timber”;
  • The dozer lines built during the suppression of the fire could be put to good use, possibly as bike paths;
  • The interoperability of communications systems needs to be improved so that firefighters from different divisions within the NPS and also between other agencies can more easily communicate during an emergency.

Joe Stutler, qualified as a Type 1 Incident Commander and Area Commander, positions at the pinnacle of the incident management structure, read a lengthy statement that included what he and his team of investigators deemed to be the pertinent facts of the fire and the investigation.

Gatlinburg fire report Joe Stutler
Joe Stutler presents information in the report about the Chimney Tops 2 Fire that burned into Gatlinburg, Tennessee.
Mr. Stutler began by saying the report was intended to not place blame on anyone, and would “avoid should have, could have, and would have, statements that frankly inhibit sensemaking and also inhibit continuing to learn from the event.”

Describing the actions taken or not taken on the fire, he said, “the review team found no evidence of negligence of anyone at the park. They did the very best they could when it came to their duty. They did the very best they could based on what was loaded in their hard drive”, he said as he pointed to his head.

Chimney Tops 2 Fire August 27, 2016
Chimney Tops 2 Fire November 27, 2016. Photo by Brett Bevill.
“Never in the history of this park or even in the surrounding area”, Mr. Stutler said, “had anyone seen the combination of severe drought, fire on the landscape, and an extreme wind event” occurring at the same time.

Combined with a wildland/urban interface, it was the “perfect storm”, he explained. The review team concluded that the fire management officials did not see the potential for the low-frequency, high-risk event.

The report made recommendations, including:

  • Revise the park’s fire management plan to reflect more aggressive strategies and tactics during extreme fire weather conditions.
  • Expand communications capacity to allow interoperability with responders outside the federal system.
  • The Fire Management Officer should be supervised by a single individual, not two.
  • Since no Red Flag Warnings were issued around the time of the fire, evaluate current Red Flag Warning and advisory criteria to reflect conditions experienced during the 2016 fire season.
  • The National Park Service leadership should embrace and institute change to create wildland fire management organizations that have the capacity and resilience to meet the realities of this “new normal” fire behavior.
  • Institute formal fire management officer and agency administrator mentoring and/or development programs.

Charges dropped against 2 teens initially thought to have started wildfire that burned into Gatlinburg

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

The local prosecutor for the Gatlinburg area announced Friday that he has decided to drop the charges against the two teenaged boys initially thought to be responsible for starting the Chimney Tops 2 Fire that five days later burned into the city in eastern Tennessee killing 14 people, forcing 14,000 to evacuate, destroying or damaging 2,400 structures, and blackening 17,000 acres.

The logic used by Fourth Judicial District Attorney General Jimmy Dunn was that since other fires in the Gatlinburg area were caused by downed wind-blown power lines, it could not be proved that any one particular fire caused specific deaths or property damage.

The arson charge would be within the jurisdiction of the Federal government since it occurred on land administered by the National Park Service.

U.S. Attorney Nancy Stallard Harr issued a statement saying, “the U.S. Attorney’s Office is in communication with the District Attorney General’s office. A review of the evidence in this case will have to take place in order to determine whether it is appropriate to seek approval from the Attorney General to prosecute juvenile offenders in federal court.”

Mr. Dunn also issued a statement, reading in part:

…the unprecedented, unexpected and unforeseeable wind event that started in the early morning hours of November 28,2016, approximately four and a half days after the initial origin of the fire, was the primary reason of the Chimney Tops II fire traveled outside the park into Gatlinburg. But for the winds that reached speeds in excess of 80 miles per hour, it is highly unlikely and improbably that the Chimney Tops II fire would have left the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and reached Gatlinburg.

Greg Salansky, Fire Management Officer for Great Smoky Mountains National Park, said the evening of November 26 he received word that a wind event was in the forecast for the afternoon of the 28th. The winds arrived very early in the morning on the 28th, about 12 hours before they were predicted to begin.

Below is the complete statement issued by District Attorney General Jimmy Dunn today:

****

“For the past seven months, an investigation has been underway into the origin, cause and consequences of a fire that started on November 23, 20165, in an area of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park referred to the Chimney Tops. The investigation is now complete the investigation was led by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation with the assistance of the National Park Service and local law enforcement, as well as various other local, state and federal agencies. The investigation involved thousands of investigative hours, over 100 witness and expert interviews across multiple states, thousands of potential witnesses, as well as thousands of pages of documents, records photographs and hours of video evidence and audio recordings.

After a comprehensive review of all of the evidence gathered and presented by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, Gatlinburg Police Department, Pigeon Forge Police Department, Sevier County Sheriff’s Office, the State, in consultation with other law enforcement agencies and various experts in wildfire progression, has determined that the unprecedented, unexpected and unforeseeable wind event that started in the early morning hours of November 28,2016, approximately four and a half days after the initial origin of the fire, was the primary reason of the Chimney Tops II fire traveled outside the park into Gatlinburg. But for the winds that reached speeds in excess of 80 miles per hour, it is highly unlikely and improbably that the Chimney Tops II fire would have left the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and reached Gatlinburg.

Because of this intervening weather event, the State is unable to prove the criminal responsibility of two juveniles beyond a reasonable doubt for the devastation that occurred outside the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. In addition to the wind, the State’s cause is further complicated by the fact that there were other fires in the area and other confirmed ignition points in the Gatlinburg area from multiple downed power lines that were felled by the wind. Some of these fires appear to have erupted prior to the fire from the Park breaching the Gatlinburg city limits. Once the investigation confirmed multiple fires with multiple points of origin, it became impossible to prove which fire may have caused the death of an individual or damage to a particular structure. Based upon this evidence, the State’s case was narrowed to prosecuting conduct that occurred wholly within the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Once the State determined that is prosecution may be limited to conduct and actions occurring within the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the District Attorney’s Office conducted additional research and investigation into jurisdictional issues regarding criminal prosecution by the State for actions or events that occur wholly within National Park land. This investigation and research revealed the existence of two documents or “Memoranda of Agreement” regarding concurrent criminal jurisdiction between the State of Tennessee and the National Park Service. One of these documents specifically lists the Great Smoky Mountains National Park as being part of a concurrent criminal jurisdiction agreement between the State of Tennessee and the National Park Service on behalf of the Federal Government. The second of these documents is an exact duplicate of the first, save one critical difference: it does not include the Great Smoky Mountain National Park in the agreement. Eleven other National Park Service on behalf of the Federal Government. The second of these documents is an exact duplicate of the first, save one critical difference: it does not include the Great Smoky Mountain National Park in the agreement. Eleven other National Park Service properties are listed on each document. It is unclear how both of these documents got into circulation, but it is clear that both have been used by various agencies in different contests.

After becoming aware of these competing documents, the State notified the Defense immediately and sought advice from the State Attorney General’s Office as well as the U.S. Attorney’s Office as to which document was controlling and whether or not the State could prosecute criminal acts that occur within the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. After reviewing the documents, both the State Attorney General’s Office and the U.S. Attorney’s Office advised that it was their respective opinions that the State of Tennessee does not have jurisdiction to prosecute criminal acts that occur wholly within the boundaries of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Therefore, any prosecution for criminal conduct occurring entirely within the boundary of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park must be initiated by the federal government.

Based upon these findings, the State has no other option but to dismiss the charges currently pending in state court as there is no subject matter jurisdiction that would allow the state court to take any action. To retain jurisdiction, the State must be able to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that at least one element of a criminal offense occurred outside of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and within the State’s jurisdiction. The State has concluded that this burden cannot be met due to the intervening weather event that occurred before any fire reached the State’s jurisdiction. Therefore, the decision to prosecute any individuals alleged to have caused a fire within the Great Smoky Mountain National Park is now within the purview of the United States Department of Justice.

The District Attorney’s Office for the Fourth Judicial District would like to thank all agencies, law enforcement and otherwise, including the TBI, the National Park Service, the Sevier county Sheriff’s Office (with special recognition for the outstanding work done by the GIS Division), the Gatlinburg Police Department, the Pigeon Forge Police Department, the Pittman Center Police Department, the Department of the Interior, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and the Tennessee Department of Agriculture, Division of Forestry, for their incredible hard work in investigating this unprecedented event. This office would also like to thank and commend the hundreds of firefighters and police officers from the national, regional, state and local levels for their extraordinary bravery and courage in confronting these fires.”

Photo gallery for the three-day, three-fire road trip

Earlier today we wrote about the three-day, three-fire, three-state road trip where a group of us boarded a very comfortable bus, or coach, and toured the sites of three large fires that occurred last fall in North Carolina, Georgia, and Tennessee.

Here are some photos, taken by Bill Gabbert. If you click on a photo, you’ll see larger versions.  The captions are in the top-left.

Three-day road trip: visiting three fires that burned last year in the Southeast

Three days, three states, three fires.

Above: Fire Management Officer Jeff Schardt talks about managing the Rough Ridge Fire.

I had never heard of a organized multi-day road trip that involved visiting several large fires that burned in previous years, so when the Consortium of Appalachian Fire Managers and Scientists (CAFMS) distributed notices about one I was very interested. Their plans were to spend about a half day each at three fires in three states over a three-day period. The fires occurred last fall in North Carolina, Georgia, and Tennessee. Since they were pretty far apart the remaining half days were devoted to traveling in a bus (or coach) to the sites. At each location we would meet with local subject matter experts that would explain how the fires were managed, the effects on the natural resources, and the social issues.

So I signed up.

The expedition was primarily organized by two folks from the CAFMS, the director Helen Mohr, and Jenifer Bunty, their Public Information Coordinator.

Ms. Mohr is a researcher that has been working with the USFS’ Southern Research Station until recently when she was selected as Director for the CAFSM, and said she now spends most of her time with that organization.

Ms. Bunty has bachelor’s degrees in biology and Russian, obtained a master’s in biology, has conducted research in the Russian Far East, and has worked for the Southern Blue Ridge Fire Learning Network. She is now working remotely for the CAFSM from China (yes, that China), but commuted to the Southeast for this road trip.

There were approximately 12 to 15 people that were on the journey for all three days, but at each stop others joined to talk about or learn about that particular fire. At the Rough Ridge Fire two or three dozen students from Clemson University’s forestry summer camp joined us.

I posted a gallery of photos taken on the trip.

Day 1 of the Road Trip, June 6, the Party Rock Fire

This fire started November 5, 2016 and blackened about 7,100 acres mostly in Chimney Rock State Park at Lake Lure in western North Carolina.

We met the first day at 8 a.m. in Flat Rock, North Carolina where we boarded the coach for a 30-minute trip to Lake Lure and heard presentations by the officials from Chimney Rock State Park and the mayors of Lake Lure and Chimney Rock Village. They discussed the effects on their populations, the evacuations, and the suppression of the fire.

Then after viewing the fire in the distance from a viewpoint, the group began a strenuous hike to a point called Party Rock, up a very steep washed out abandoned logging road — 2.4 miles round trip with a 1,500-foot elevation gain. After lunch and various discussions about fire effects, five hours later we reboarded the thankfully air conditioned coach.

Party Rock Fire
The group takes a break for lunch at Party Rock, on the Party Rock Fire.

In another two hours we were at a motel in Gatlinburg, Tennessee.

More information about the Party Rock Fire can be found at Wildfire Today and Inciweb.

Day 2 of the Road Trip, June 7, the Chimney Tops 2 Fire 

The Chimney Tops 2 Fire started in southeast Tennessee November 23, 2016 inside Smoky Mountains National Park and six days burned into Gatlinburg killing 14 people, forcing 14,000 to evacuate, destroying or damaging 2,400 structures, and blackening 17,000 acres.

A short drive that morning took us to a turnout on US Highway 441 where the Park’s Fire Management Officer Greg Salansky told us about the first six days of the Chimney Tops 2 Fire. Later at different locations we heard a talk by Fire Ecologist Rob Klein about fire effects on vegetation, and Jessica Giacomini and Cory Blair presented information about the effects on animals.

Chimney Tops 2 Fire
Fire Management Officer Greg Salansky tells the group about the first days of the Chimney Tops 2 Fire.

Ms. Giacomini said of the 50 black bears in the park that have radio collars, 20 of them were in the fire area at the time. All of those survived, but two that were not collared died; one was found dead and the other had to be euthanized due to its serious injuries. She said the collared bears hunkered down and remained in the fire area as it burned. This will provide a very rare opportunity, she said, to find out what bears do before, during, and after a wildfire.

That day the group viewed the burned area from several different vantage points, hiked the Cove Mountain Trail, and heard from Emily Snider of UNC and Joe O’Brien of the USFS about various fire intensities, the effects on Table Mountain Pine, and delayed mortality of the overstory.

The day ended with a 2.5 hour coach ride to Dalton, Georgia.

More information: Mr. Salansky’s presentation to the group; general coverage of the Chimney Tops 2 Fire at Wildfire Today, and Inciweb.

Day 3 of the Road Trip, June 8, the Rough Ridge Fire 

The Rough Ridge Fire started on October 16, 2016 in the Cohutta Wilderness of northern Georgia and burned almost 28,000 acres in the Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest.

A 30-minute coach ride took us from Dalton, Georgia to the Conasauga Ranger Station in Chatsworth where we heard from District Fire Management Officer Jeff Schardt.

This was the location where we were joined by two to three dozen forestry students from Clemson. After the initial presentation at the District Office, we all got back into our coach and the vans the students traveled in, and the convoy visited several sites in the footprint of the fire.

Areas treated with prescribed fire over the years were taken advantage of in several locations around the perimeter, and the group saw some of the effects of those projects. The reduction in fuel lowered the fire intensity and served as logical points at which to stop the fire.

Karen Larson, Recreation Program Manager on the District, told the group about issues related to managing a fire in a federal wilderness area, and how the decisions were made initially about suppression tactics.

District Biologist Ruth Stokes covered the impacts on animals. She said bats are migratory and had already left for their hibernation sites in caves. The fire may have destroyed some den trees that bears like, but the fire probably created quite a few more.

Ms. Stokes said that some fish were killed along several miles of the Conasauga River on the northwestern fire perimeter. The exact cause is not certain, but they think it may have been a result of ash deposition in the water. That area, she said, was heavily impacted by smoke. Fire retardant dropped by aircraft was not used in that area.

More information about the Rough Ridge Fire: Wildfire Today and Inciweb.

Summary

At all three fire sites we were told that access was extremely difficult and that issue had a very significant effect on the selection of suppression alternatives and the ultimate size and duration of the fires.

This is the first multi-day, multi-fire organized road trip that I am aware of. Depending on your interests, if there are ever any more you might find it as interesting as I did. Unfortunately, when someone asked Ms. Mohr, the director of CAFMS, if she would organize more in the future, her very quick answer was, “No”.

I found the 3-day road trip very interesting and worthwhile, and hope the CAFMS and other groups conduct more.

A much shorter trip on the other side of the country occurred today, planned by Utah State University and billed as the “Second Annual Wildland Fire Tour”, a six-hour event south of Tooele, Utah. The topic was mechanical treatments such as mastication. There was no indication that they would tour a prescribed or wildland fire. It was live-streamed; I watched a few minutes of it but it looked like it was filmed with a cell phone and the wind noise on the mic made it very difficult to hear the speaker. The group was using a nifty portable PA system that appeared to have a hand-held wireless mic. I could not tell if the speaker/amp, about the size of a carry-on suitcase, was battery powered or if there was a power cord that I could not see.