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 2,500 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.’ ”

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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.

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.