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.
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.
“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.”
The fire spread into Gatlinburg, killing 14 people, burning 2,013 homes and 53 commercial structures, and causing more than $500 million in damage.
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.
…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.
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.
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.
The fire started on November 23, 2016. On November 27, two days before the fire burned into Gatlinburg killing 14 people, destroying 2,013 homes and 53 commercial structures, and causing more than $500 million in damage, there were three large air tankers parked at Chattanooga, Tennessee, 105 miles southwest of the fire; two RJ85’s and one C-130Q. But the air tankers were not used on the fire.
The only aircraft used before the fire burned into the city was a helicopter in the afternoon of November 27, which was replaced a few hours later by two other helicopters. They were refilling their water buckets at Fontana Lake. The 26-mile round trip to refill with water greatly reduced the amount of water delivered to the fire, compared to how much could have been dropped if a closer water source had been created or used.
Normally aviation resources do not put out a fire, but they can sometimes slow down the spread until ground resources can move in to construct direct fireline around the perimeter, removing the vegetation, or fuel, and preventing it from growing. But if firefighters are not allowed to directly access the fire’s edge due to a perceived safety issue, very large amounts of water or fire retardant can be applied from the air that in some cases can virtually put out a small fire. Or, pause the spread until rains arrive — like it did late in the day on November 28.
Another alternative to directly attacking a fire is to construct firelines some distance away, or use natural barriers, and intentionally burn out the vegetation between that line and the fire, stopping the spread. This was not done during the five days before the fire burned into Gatlinburg as the fire grew from 5 to 35 acres during that period.
Strong winds can not only cause a fire to grow quickly, but they can also make the use of air tankers and helicopters impossible. Any retardant or water dropped can be blown far off target, making it ineffective. And, strong gusty winds can make it unsafe for aircraft flying low and slow over rough terrain.
There were times between November 23 and 28 when the wind speeds were too high to allow the use of aircraft.
The data in the charts above, supplied by Great Smoky Mountains National Park, was recorded at Cades Cove 20 miles west of the fire, and Cove Mountain 8 miles northwest of the fire. It shows that the winds would have allowed the safe and effective use of aircraft during the daylight hours from early afternoon on November 24 through sundown on November 27. But they were not used except for the helicopters during the afternoon of November 27. The wind was far too strong on November 28 and 29 for aircraft.
Energy Release Component (ERC)
The ERC is calculated daily at Fire Weather Stations around the United States. It is a number related to the available energy (BTU) per unit area (square foot) within the flaming front at the head of a vegetation fire. Daily variations in ERC are due to changes in moisture content of the various fuels present, both live and dead.
The average ERC for the Tennessee mountains in late November is 16 to 20. The 97th percentile is 40, meaning 97 percent of the time it is lower than that number. Since early September it had mostly been above the 90th percentile and was above the 97th percentile during much of November. The day the fire started the ERC was 41, and in the following days was higher, reaching 50 at one point which was the highest ever recorded on that date in the 23-year history of data from that weather station.
When the ERC is above average, and especially when it is higher than the 90th or 97th percentile, fires spread more quickly, burn deeper into the duff and organic material on the forest floor, and exhibit more resistance to control.
The ERC, along with other indicators, is often used as a planning tool to preposition firefighting resources, increasing their numbers in areas where large fires are expected. Days off for firefighters can be cancelled and prescribed fires postponed.
On December 5 we wrote about the Keetch-Byram Drought Index (KBDI), an indicator of drought and its effect on how wildfires burn. On November 23 when the fire was discovered the KBDI was very high, 599, Molly Schroer, a spokesperson for the fire’s Incident Management Team told us. For reference, 600 or above would indicate severe drought and increased wildfire occurrence. Intense, deep burning fires with significant downwind spotting should be expected under those conditions.
Many fire managers, when informed about a new fire under those KBDI and ERC conditions, would have attacked it immediately and aggressively with overwhelming force, from both the air and the ground.
The fire burned from Great Smoky Mountains National Park into Gatlinburg, Tennessee November 28.
Above: Chimney Tops 2 Fire November 27, 2016. Photo by Brett Bevill.
On December 13 the National Park Service delivered a verbal statement and released two documents about the Chimney Tops 2 Fire.
The fire killed 14 people and destroyed 2,013 homes and 53 commercial structures. An additional 244 homes were damaged.
At a news conference on Tuesday Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GRSM) Deputy Superintendent Clay Jordan read a 13 minute statement covering the day by day events from the time the fire was ignited by teenaged arsonists on November 23 to when it burned into Gatlinburg on November 28.
Mr. Jordan said, “On Saturday [November 27 two days before the fire burned into Gatlinburg] we requested a four-day near-term analysis from the U.S. Forest Service at the Rocky Mountain Research Station.” He went on to say, “Their analysis modeled low fire growth downhill over the next couple of days as the fire approached the containment boundary. This analysis did not forecast the behavior the fire generated on Monday.”
Mr. Jordan said Monday morning, November 29, spot fires created by lofted burning embers had occurred “as far as one-half to a mile from the main fire burning on Chimney Top.”
He concluded his presentation by saying:
We believe there is no way we could have controlled this fire prior to the wind event. The reality is we believe there is no number of firefighters or fire engines that could have stopped the spread of this fire in such extreme wind conditions.
We will continue to explore lessons learned from this incident and we appreciate the outpouring of support and resources that we have received from across the nation to help us fight this fire.
Below is a video recording of Mr. Jordan’s statement.
The presentation has a map showing the location of 911 calls, which is interesting.
From our interviews with people associated with the fire and the information released yesterday, it is clear that no action was taken by ground-based firefighters to actively suppress or stop the spread of the fire until Sunday, November 27, four days after the fire started. The activity that day involved constructing fire line and improving the natural boundaries of containment lines about half a mile away from the fire.
The chronology document released on December 13 implied that three large Type 1 helicopters dropped water on the fire “throughout the day” on Sunday November 27. But the information we obtained, which was confirmed by Mr. Jordan’s presentation yesterday, showed that the drops only occurred in the afternoon. This was the first time any direct suppression occurred on the fire up to that point.
That afternoon a Chinook Type 1 helicopter began dropping water on the fire, refilling at Fontana Lake 13 miles to the southwest, according to a source we talked to who didn’t want their name disclosed because they were not authorized to speak on the subject. The helicopter worked until it had to refuel and then two other Type 1 helicopters took its place until dark. Sunset that day was at 5:21 p.m. which would have allowed them to drop on the fire until 5:51 p.m., 30 minutes after sunset. This 26-mile round trip to refill with water greatly reduced the amount of water delivered to the fire, compared to how much could have been dropped if a closer water source had been used.
During the previous four days no nearby helicopter water sources were identified or created. Often on structure and wildland fires portable, collapsable water tanks are quickly set up for engines or helicopters to draft from or dip into with their buckets. Some of the larger tanks, such as the Heliwell, can hold almost 15,000 gallons. These tanks can be kept full if connected to a fire hydrant or filled with a water tender shuttle.
If a good water source had been created or identified on day two of the fire and helicopters had been ordered then instead of day five, hundreds of thousands of gallons of water could have been dropped on the fire in the four days before the wind increased on Monday, November 28.
Aircraft dropping water or fire retardant on a fire cannot put it out. However, if huge amounts of water are applied to a relatively small fire in a “wash the fire off the hill” approach, it can have a very positive effect.
Under normal circumstances limited amounts of liquids dropped from the air can be most effective if firefighters on the ground can move in quickly to take advantage of the short term change in fire behavior by constructing firelines, stopping the spread at that location. In this case, there were no firefighters in a position to take direct action.
For two weeks in numerous documents and presentations the NPS has been saying that wind gusts up to 87 mph were recorded at the Cove Mountain weather station 8 miles northwest of the fire’s origin and 4.5 miles west of downtown Gatlinburg. We have been attempting to obtain a copy of the data recorded by that station before it shut down at about 9 p.m. on November 28 when it lost electrical power. On December 15 we were told by GRSM spokesperson Dana Soehn that the data will not be released for at least two to three months because it has to go through a quality control process by multiple agencies. So in other words, they are not sure the data is accurate, but are very comfortable cherry picking one number and repeating it over and over.
However, weather data from numerous other stations is readily available.
At 2 a.m. Monday November 28, the day the fire burned into Gatlinburg, the wind speeds recorded at the Indian Grave weather station 18 miles west of the fire began increasing and the direction became more consistently out of the south and southwest. Until 1 p.m. sustained speeds were 4 to 6 mph with gusts at 12 to 19 mph. Between 2 p.m. and 6 p.m. they increased to 7 to 15 mph with gusts of 22 to 32 mph — all generally out of the south, blowing toward Gatlinburg. From 7 p.m. until midnight sustained winds were at 13 to 17 mph with gusts from 34 to 49.
This data from Indian Grave was not very different from the forecast issued the day before, Sunday November 27 at 7:29 a.m. That Spot Forecast, specifically for the fire area, predicted strong winds all day on Monday — at 7 a.m. 12 mph gusting to 25 and increasing throughout the day to 20 mph gusting to 40 by 6 p.m.
We were not able to find a Spot Forecast for the fire that was requested or issued on Monday, November 28.