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.
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.
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.
In another two hours we were at a motel in Gatlinburg, Tennessee.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Above: Fire Management Officer Greg Salansky points toward the twin peaks (at upper left) where the Chimney Tops 2 Fire burned for five days before it spread into Gatlinburg, Tennessee. Photo by Bill Gabbert.
When a group of wildfire professionals visited Great Smoky Mountains National Park on June 7, Fire Management Officer Greg Salansky walked them through the steps he took in evaluating and managing the fire that after six days burned into Gatlinburg, Tennessee killing 14 people, forcing 14,000 to evacuate, destroying or damaging 2,400 structures, and blackening 17,000 acres. In addition to coordinating the wildland fire management activities at that park, Mr. Salansky does the same thing for 20 other National Park Service sites in the Southeast United States
Late in the afternoon on November 23, 2016 firefighters in the Park were responding to a report of a vehicle fire when they spotted a vegetation fire near the top of a steep hill called Chimney Tops. A fire in the same area a week earlier was given the name “Chimney Tops”, so this new fire became “Chimney Tops 2”.
Mr. Salansky and one firefighter hiked up a trail to the fire area but when they got close to the blaze in a very steep area the other firefighter decided that it was unsafe for her to continue so she remained at that location while Mr. Salansky continued. Working his way along a portion of the fire edge he found that the vegetation was very dense making travel through the steep, rocky terrain difficult.
He tried scraping some leaves to begin a fire line, but told the group last week standing in a pull-out on the highway looking up at Chimney Tops, “Well, maybe I can go in on the north side. So I walked that ridge and the smoke laid over about chest high. I’d get in about 20 feet and the wind would let up and the smoke would come up. There was a drop off on both sides. I did that a couple of times before I figured out I shouldn’t even be here. What am I doing here? So I thought I’m done, there’s nothing I can do with it. It’s dark. It’s not safe. So I bailed off and tied in with April who was my safety, since she was smart enough not to go where I went. So we hiked back down. We’ve got a squad coming in the next day, Thanksgiving, welcome to Thanksgiving day.”
The next day, November 24 (day #2), with about six other firefighters he hiked up near the fire that occurred a week before where there is a sign reading, “From this area past it is closed.” Mr. Salansky said. “There’s been one fatality and multiple injuries that cost like $20,000 apiece. So all the folks read that and they’re like, ‘It says it’s closed and dangerous and you want us to go in and fight fire.’ ”
Above: Chimney Tops 2 Fire November 27, 2016. Photo by Brett Bevill.
It’s been six months since a wildfire tore through the Tennessee mountain town of Gatlinburg, but political contests hinging on — among other things — an allegedly botched evacuation are heating up.
With more than 300 members on its closed Facebook group, Gatlinburg Fire Survivors has billed itself as a support group and a “safe place to tell your stories, vent your frustrations, and talk with others who went through the same thing.” But according to the Knoxville News Sentinel newspaper, the group in recent months has begun lobbying for accountability, getting only mixed results and leading some to challenge incumbent elected officials for their political seat.
While they say they support the first responders who scrambled to evacuate the town when the fire blew up Nov. 28, they — and many others — have criticized the lack of public information and communication breakdowns that hindered timely evacuations.
Issues surrounding the Gatlinburg evacuation have been widely reported, including by Wildfire Today. Essentially, city officials downplayed the threat early in the incident. Then, when hurricane-force winds tore through the region and fanned the flames, a “communication failure” caused by disabled communication services prevented the immediate issuance of a timely alert. Alternative sources of emergency communication — local media, for example — had only a marginal effect.
“Communications between the agencies was interrupted due to disabled phone, internet, and electrical services. Due to this communication failure, the emergency notification was not delivered as planned,” local, state and federal authorities wrote in a joint news release at the time. “Despite the catastrophic events that created barriers to communication, officials utilized all resources available to them at the time to warn the public of the impending threat.”
Fast-forward six months, questions and demands for accountability still abound, especially from survivors groups whose members say they suffer from PTSD as a result of the frantic evacuation.
“From the perspective of the Gatlinburg Wildfire Survivors, those who wield political power in Gatlinburg have labeled them as nothing more than a band of troublemakers. Appearing at public meetings has been fruitless,” the newspaper reported this week.
The divide hit a turning point of sorts over the weekend when a former city councilman held a town hall and outlined his reasoning for seeking a return to the five-person council. From the Knoxville News Sentinel:
He said he decided to seek a seat on council after seeing too many quality programs and events “fall by the wayside” under the existing leadership. He said he was responsible for securing the downtown flood warning system when he was on council and wants a more comprehensive system to deal with a multitude of potential emergencies.
Hawkins’ flood warning system, which consisted of a string of public address speakers, wasn’t activated Nov. 28 until the majority of Gatlinburg’s residents had already decided to evacuate.
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.
On a related news front, Dolly Parton’s Dollywood Foundation gave $10,000 each to nearly 900 families displaced by deadly Tennessee wildfires to assist with the damages, the Associated Press reported. The singer said in a statement that the final distribution of checks was made this week to families in Sevier County.
“I’m as proud of being part of this, helping my people, as anything I’ve ever done in my life,”Parton said Monday, according to CNN. “And our next step is to continue to look at what’s ahead for everyone and our long-term recovery here.”
Two employees of Great Smoky Mountains National Park are receiving recognition for the pivotal role they played in helping to clear a highway of downed trees that were preventing thousands of people from evacuating from Gatlinburg, Tennessee as the Chimney Tops 2 Fire burned into the city on November 28, 2016.
The truck that Ryan Williamson and Andrew Herrington were in that day was carrying two chain saws because Mr. Williamson had been taking a tree felling class that morning. One of them was his personal saw and the other belonged to the National Park Service.
After assisting to evacuate one of the administrative sites in the park, they were on a stretch of U.S. 321/441 between Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg called the Spur. Below is an excerpt from an article in the Knoxville News Sentinel:
When the two rangers arrived [on the Spur] after dark that evening, a line of what they estimated held more than 1,000 vehicles was gridlocked for more than a mile and a half coming out of Gatlinburg. Treetop-high flames came nearly up to the road shoulders, the wind was howling, and the smoke was blinding.
“It looked like the end of the world,” Herrington said.
With traffic stopped and their truck at the end of the line, Herrington jumped from the passenger seat and trotted, carrying a chainsaw more than a mile to the front where a large pine had fallen and was blocking the road.
The two of them worked for hours in the very strong winds with the fire nearby, each going through three tanks of chain saw gas, to keep the highway clear as trees continued to fall into the highway.
They were recently honored by the Tennessee Chapter of the Wildlife Society with a newly established Tennessee Conservation Hero awards.
The fire killed 14 people and destroyed 2,013 homes and 53 commercial structures. It eventually burned over 17,000 acres in and outside the park.
The report is expected to be completed in about 60 days, after which it will be submitted the the NPS national office for review before it is released.
A former Type 1 Incident Commander will lead a team that will conduct a review of the Chimney Tops 2 Fire that started in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park on November 23, 2016. After growing to dozens of acres over five days the fire was pushed by very strong winds out of the park into Gatlinburg, Tennessee where it killed 14 people and destroyed 2,013 homes and 53 commercial structures. It eventually burned over 17,000 acres in and outside the park.
The purpose of the review is to identify the facts leading up to and during the Chimney Tops 2 fire within the boundaries of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, as well as make recommendations on any planning, operational, or managerial issues which can be addressed locally, regionally, and/or nationally to reduce the chances of a similar incident in the future.
Joe Stutler, a former Type 1 Incident Commander and now a senior advisor for Deschutes County, Oregon, will lead the interagency team.
Other members include:
Fire Behavior Specialist: William Grauel, Bureau of Indian Affairs – National Fire Ecologist, Boise, ID
Municipal Fire Department Representative: Jimmy Isaacs, Boone Fire Department – Chief, Boone, NC
Fire Operations/Risk Management Specialist: Shane Greer, U.S. Forest Service – Assistant Fire Director-Risk Management, Region 2, Golden, CO
NPS Fire Management Officer: Mike Lewelling, Rocky Mountain National Park – Fire Management Officer, Estes Park, CO
Fire Operations/Risk Management Specialist/Writer/Editor: Miranda Stuart, NPS Branch of Wildland Fire – Fire Management Specialist, Crawfordville, FL
NPS Management Liaison: Tim Reid, National Park Service – Superintendent, Devils Tower National Monument, WY
The work of the review team is expected to take up 59 days according to information released by the National Park Service. After that, the team will submit their report to Bill Kaage, Division Chief of Fire and Aviation for the NPS, for review prior to it being made public.