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:

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“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.

NPS official talks about the wildfire that burned into Gatlinburg

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.

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

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.’ ”

Continue reading “NPS official talks about the wildfire that burned into Gatlinburg”

Tempers flare in Gatlinburg as criticized wildfire evacuation gets political

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.

The election is scheduled for May 16.

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.”

Tenn. Highway Patrol rescue
State Troopers hiked in to devastated areas in Gatlinburg, TN to rescue and escort out trapped residents. Tenn. Highway Patrol photo.

Park rangers honored for clearing evacuation route during Gatlinburg fire

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.

Chimney Tops 2 Fire
Chimney Tops 2 Fire. Incident Management Team photo.

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.

Articles on Wildfire Today about the Chimney Tops 2 Fire.