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.

Team to Begin Chimney Tops 2 Fire Review at Great Smoky Mountains National 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.

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

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.

Chimney Tops 2 Fire discussed at Senate Confirmation Hearing

Today the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources conducted a hearing to consider the nomination of Montana Representative Ryan Zinke to be the new Secretary of the Interior. I watched a portion of it and two items caught my attention.

Mr. Zinke said in no uncertain terms that he was against turning over federal land to states or other organizations. In fact it has been reported that he resigned from the Republican National Committee this summer when they insisted on making land divestiture a part of their platform.

The other issue was the Chimney Tops 2 Fire that in November burned from Great Smoky Mountains National Park into Gatlinburg, Tennessee. We captured this 3-minute portion of the hearing in the video above. The fire killed 14 people and destroyed 2,013 homes and 53 commercial structures. Tennessee Senator Lamar Alexander wanted assurance from Mr. Zinke that he would commit to “paying close attention” to a scheduled review of the incident “so that we can see if there are any lessons to be learned for the future”. Mr. Zinke said, “Senator, I will absolutely commit to that.”

Mr. Alexander also made a pitch to increase the funding for Great Smoky Mountains National Park, arguing that the agreement when the land bought by the people and given to the federal government stipulated that entrance fees could not be charged. He said Yellowstone NP has half as many visitors as Smoky MNP but twice the budget. The Senator did not mention that Yellowstone is almost four times as large, 522,427 acres vs. 2,219,791 acres

After the hearing concludes a video recording of the entire event will be available at the Committee’s website.

For the most current information about the Chimney Tops 2 Fire at Gatlinburg, see our articles tagged “Chimney 2 Fire”.

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Incident Management Team from Colorado assisted with the Chimney Tops 2 Fire

The following article, written by Phil Daniels, is from the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control and describes an assignment of the “Gray Team” on the fire that burned into Gatlinburg, Tennessee in late November.

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“The Southern Area of the US had been suffering from significant drought for most of 2016.  Early in November, the George Washington / Jefferson National Forest requested our crew to respond to Virginia to be available for fires which may occur.  They didn’t have to wait long! During their over two week assignment, the crew worked on two large fires in addition to their being pre-positioned for new fires.

Later that month, the USFS requested that we deploy our Multi Mission Aircraft to South Carolina to assist in the detection of new fires and provide mapping and other services to existing fires.  The MMA flew missions daily across all of the southern states for over three weeks.

Finally, on the week of Thanksgiving, the Southern Area again asked for our assistance; this time requesting a Type 3 Incident Management Team to preposition to Eastern Tennessee in case of a large fire needing a higher level of management.  Our Team departed for Johnson City, TN, on November 27, but before they could arrive they were diverted to the Great Smoky National Park to manage the Chimney Tops 2 fire just South of Gatlinburg.

Our arrival coincided with the mass evacuation of Gatlinburg and the team members got to experience first hand the chaos associated with moving 25,000 people down a single road in advance of an inferno.

For the next two weeks, our team and the Southern Area “Red Team” (a type 1 IMT) assisted the Park and the surrounding communities in suppressing the wildland fires and returning their lives to as close normal as possible.

The team consisted of experts in the area of incident management from DFPC, Boulder Rural Fire Rescue, Pagosa Fire Department, and the BLM.  Each of the team members were able to have a positive impact on their counterparts in the towns of Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg.”

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The fire spread into Gatlinburg, killing 14 people, burning 2,013 homes and 53 commercial structures, and causing more than $500 million in damage.

For the most current information about the Chimney Tops 2 Fire at Gatlinburg, see our articles tagged “Chimney 2 Fire”.

Typos or errors, report them HERE.

Former Fire Management Officer fought off the Chimney Tops 2 Fire, saving his home

It had been a year since David Loveland retired as Fire Management Officer at Great Smoky Mountains National Park. On November 28, 2016 when the Chimney Tops 2 Fire burned from the park into Gatlinburg, he had been living in his home for 10 years. His goal had been to reduce the vegetation, the fuel, on the entire three acres to make it as fire resistant as possible.

When the fire approached the property between Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg the clearing project was not complete, but the work he had done combined with his efforts as the fire burned around the structure meant he still had a place to live when the smoke finally cleared.

He tried to evacuate but the road was blocked by a tree that fell during the strong winds. He and his wife returned to the house and fought off the fire with a battery powered leaf blower and used a hose until the loss of power shut down the water system. His experience fighting fires in Yosemite National Park and other areas out west was in the back of his mind as he labored in the smoke.

His story was documented in the Knoxville News Sentinel. Below is a brief excerpt.

…Homes dotting the top of the ridge were soon ablaze. Other residences below them were also on fire. Smoke was everywhere.

More problems. A tree limb fell over the power lines, knocking out electricity to the home and plunging the interior into darkness. The smoke detectors were going bonkers, adding to the overall chaos as Kathaleen Loveland raced about the home trying to get important items and documents together.

“I had a backup generator, but I had a problem with it that I didn’t know about until then,” David Loveland said. “I had only the water pressure that was left in the hose, and I needed that to protect the propane tank.”

That left Loveland with a leaf blower with three batteries, a hoe and a nearly powerless water hose. But, he had also prepared…

About 20 homes in Mr. Loveland’s neighborhood were destroyed. His was one of four that survived.

The fire continued to spread, killing 14 people, burning 2,013 homes and 53 commercial structures, and causing more than $500 million in damage.

For the most current information about the Chimney Tops 2 Fire at Gatlinburg, see our articles tagged “Chimney 2 Fire”.

News Sentinel article about Gatlinburg fire

Don Jacobs of the Knoxville News Sentinel has written a well researched article about the Chimney Tops 2 Fire that burned into Gatlinburg, Tennessee on November 28. The fire was monitored but not suppressed for five days until a predicted wind event pushed the fire into the city, killing 14 people, destroying 2,013 homes and 53 commercial structures, and causing more than $500 million in damage.

In addition to talking with Great Smoky Mountains National Park personnel in an attempt to determine what actions were taken on the fire, Mr. Jacobs interviewed four former wildland firefighters to gather information about how wildfires are typically managed.

Below is the beginning of the article. You can read the entire piece here.

Officials should have doused a 1.5-acre fire in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park days before high winds created a megafire that swept into Gatlinburg, former U.S. Forest Service firefighters said .

At the very least, said retired employees with almost 200 years of firefighting experience, officials in the National Park should have summoned every resource available when alerted Nov. 26 of the expected high winds.

“I’ve written for years that the best way to keep fires from becoming megafires is to attack them with overwhelming force, both on the ground and from the air,” said Bill Gabbert, who writes an online blog about wildland fires and aviation resources to battle wildland fires.

“People say that is very expensive, but it is not as expensive as losing 14 lives and $500 million in lost structures.”

Gabbert has written three articles on wildfiretoday.com about the Gatlinburg fires, providing technical data about fire conditions and aerial resources available to firefighters.

Four other former U.S. Forest Service firefighters agreed park officials didn’t pay attention to the severe drought, low humidity that provided a tinderbox for flames, available options to quell the slow-moving fire before winds made the flames uncontrollable and alarming weather forecasts.

Mr. Jacobs quoted the park’s Superintendent, Clay Jordan, as saying:

There was no way the fire could have been extinguished before the winds came.

For the most current information about the Chimney Tops 2 Fire at Gatlinburg, see our articles tagged “Chimney 2 Fire”.

Typos or errors, report them HERE.