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.

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Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire.

14 thoughts on “Team to Begin Chimney Tops 2 Fire Review at Great Smoky Mountains National Park”

  1. Assist superintendent stated ” we could not stop that fire with a thousand fire fighters and a thousand fire trucks lined end to end on Newfound Gap road”. Besides all the other botched intervention, at this point per RM 55, crises management should have been instituted. 1st priority in fire manual. Save human life. Jordan was on the front line of the fire and knew the exact fire behavior. This is the critical moment when human life was first priority. No one seems to know at this point if Jordan got on his horse and rode through town yelling the fire is coming, the fire is coming. Communication was imperative during this entire fire event. As anyone knows that has fought fires they easily flop over and get out of control. With the drought, winds and fuel condition it was a given no one was not going to easily control this fire, Had the COMMUNICATION been established, safe zones and evacuation ROUTES planned, backfires and Burn out issues were irrelevant and have been used frequently. It’s gonna burn anyway so trying to diminish the fuel makes sense. DESPERATION is exactly what happened in this fire with incompetent and unqualified park service leaders who were running around like a bunch of monkeys in a desert looking for a tree to climb. They are however being smart by allowing public opinion to blame the local authorities allowing this fire to cause the deaths associated with this fire and have gone so far as to allow the State Prosecutor to enter into an Exclusive Federal Jurisdiction where they assisted and colluded in illegally making criminal charges, adopted a narrative, hid behind a bogus gag order and misleading the public. Not only did they botch the fire guidelines, but they went further by botching the law enforcement and legal investigation. Idioscy, and incompetence fall under Scope of employment, but don’t think negligence and in this case gross negligence applies and each of these managers should be personally and civilly liable for the death and destruction that occurred. All this information on the fire and law enforcement responsibility are in written directives and my personal “Opinion #101 handbook.

  2. From the bottom question to the top. 1) Back fires are used to stop the destruction(hopefully) and establish a containment line on a division. Loose a little to save a lot. 2) Common errors; eating the undercooked chicken at incident base and relying on computer models to tell you what the fire is going to do. 3) Examining burn areas? Fire behavior is a know science. You add topography, wind, fuels, local weather, time of day, and EXPERIENCE you can decipher almost any predicted fire behavior. Wind is the “wild card”. 4) Strong winds and backfires (any tactical fire) usually are desperation attempts during strong winds as all other options are eliminated, except to run. Fire is working you. You are not working the fire. 5) Fire was too risky to attack on the day before Thanksgiving? Looked like any other wildfire. This scenario is played out a dozen times a day in the west. Small containable fire. Attack from the air (water drops) until crews can move into position to start line construction Safely! Sometimes this aerial attack will consist of bounding the fire with water drops for over a day. A picture is worth 10 words, my first post. “should have attacked by air and put the darn thing out”. Just my opinion. Remember I wasn’t there.

  3. Johnny,

    I’m not an experienced firefighter by all means. My first wildfire was due to an “out of control” prescribed burned with the USFS here in the Tellico District of the Cherokee National Forest. From there my fire experiences were sporadic. This was quite sometime ago when excessive fuels were minimal and the region was receiving more annual rainfall, normal precipitation if you will.

    I appreciate your more thorough break down of backfire. Though I’m missing the boat a little here, my questioning is still legitimate – being that any managed ignited fire can still get “out of control” – adding to an existing wildfire or creating one.

    My questions are: what were the wind speeds when NPS crews ignited these backfires to protect NPS structures; and if they ignited fire on the 28th when the winds were getting stronger and stronger, would the potential exist for backfire embers to get out of control?

    Would it be wise to implement backfire with such strong winds forecasted on top of exceptional drought and fuels?

    The Park Superintendent did not want to risk the lives of NPS fire crews with the Chimney Tops Fire 2; and that is to be respected. Even so, is it “risky” to ignite backfire with such extreme fire conditions?

    If the NPS backfires were not ignited on the 28th; then they had to be ignited on the 27th – a day before the fire broke out. If that was the case, then they had to be fully aware that the fire was going to come down the mountain and burn not only NPS structures, but Gatlinburg structures as well?

    With that said: were NPS officials aggressive enough in seriously emphasizing to Gatlinburg officials to start preparing for mandatory evacuations?

    Can fire experts examine burned areas and decipher the path of natural wildfire from managed ignited fires?

    Here is a question & answer from Bill interviewing Tom Nichols on Wildfire Today:

    “One of the more common errors in judgment you have seen on fires?
    Suppression actions, especially backfires, causing way more damage to natural resources than the wildfire is doing.”


  4. Sad to see all the loss in TN. Spent some time in Gatlinburg area years ago. It is beautiful but could not help but notice the indefensibility of so many homes in regards to wildfire. I’m not in a spot to say who’s at fault but the results are clear. Regardless who managed( mismanaged?) the fire there at some point homeowners have to consider their own buildings vulnerability and do something about it. We all know not to rely on gov to rescue any of us. The recent heads up to Western type fire in a Eastern locale was in PA in April 2016. 8K acres smoked in a WUI setting in 3 days and the first time in state history a T2 team was called in as well as a T1 handcrew. 2016 should serve as a wake up for everyone in the East to take a look at their homes then either fix or get help fixing the indefensible space issues so common here.

  5. Johnny,

    Thanks for your break down on backfire. Desperation firing seems appropriate terminology considering the circumstances to protect NPS structures. A question that only NPS personnel knows: what were the wind speeds when they ignited the fires to protect historic structures? Maybe Park staff wanted to use the backfire terminology to avoid the word “desperation”? When management actions are implemented as the last alternative, the potential for more chaos can unfold. Let’s hope this wasn’t the case.

    Some folks ask why so much persistence questioning the NPS here. Past history has clearly shown that NPS is NOT always forthcoming with the public and can distort truths to portray the propaganda that they want the public to believe. Also, if they want to learn from this tragic fire and make changes as they have basically stated in relation to the multi-agency review, then DIG DOWN and get to the truth.

    I apologize for my misspelled word America (n) in my last post.


    1. Back firing is the ignition of a fire ahead of the main fire in order to take advantage of the change in wind direction (reserve) caused by large amount of air (o2) required to substaine the approaching main fire. Where do back fires work best. A full blown timber fire releasing a huge amount of energy. (big draft) Where do back fires don’t work, grass, brush and desert fuels. These fires move too quickly and usually don’t produce enough energy to allow for an effect draft at distance (1/4 mile); and are usually influenced by strong winds. Back fires don’t usually work in hardwood forests as the amount of released energy (intensity) can’t produce the draft effect needed especially if a wind is driving the fire. As the fire is approaching, unlike pine species the amount of leafs that are ignited and become airborne will carry across (only takes one burning leaf) the intended control line. Sound familiar? Backfiring 101: A full blown timber fire is approaching your (crew) location on a dirt road, sounds like a jet running. You can see the flames through the trees. The fire is maybe 1/4 mile away. As you stand looking TOWARD the approaching flames the wind is blowing in your face. The crew is nervously ready with their firing devices. You kick the dirt on the road and it goes behind you. The fire is getting closer. The wind is in your face, your P factor is increasing. Suddenly the perspiration of a cooling wind on your face is gone? Your face is getting hot (wind reversal) wind is now at your back. You kick the dirt again and confirm the wind direction has shifted 180 degrees. The draft has began! Now you lite the backfire. Hope this helps explain backfiring. Good luck to all in the fire area.

  6. I once again urge investigators and planners to consider the amounts of fuel available for future wildfires when planning fire response. The area below the Cherokee Orchard / Roaring Fork loop road was full of dead hemlocks when the fire hit. This area is adjacent to parts of Gatlinburg that were hardest hit by the wildfire. That is no coincidence. It may be a good idea to map out the areas where there are numerous standing dead conifers; these areas should be given special consideration.

  7. In regard to the upcoming Multi-Agency review of the Chimney Tops Fire 2 and the NPS protecting Park structures with BACKFIRE:

    In the Winter 2016/17 issue of Smokies Guide, the Park Services claims they used foam and backfire to protect Park structures.

    Using backfire (back-burn) to reduce fuels feeding oncoming fire is commonly used in firefighting. Though backfire has proven to be successful; there are accounts where backfire actually creates wildfire and or contributes to an existing fire. Some fire experts are concerned about the usage of backfire and prescribed burns getting “out of control”. That is the question here at hand?

    So WHEN & WHERE did GSMNP fire crews light these backfires to protect Park structures and WHAT WERE THE WINDS?

    Did these backfires in any way or form contribute to the existing wildfire that devastated the Ski Mountain area and locales such as Baskins Creek, or did these backfires form “new” fire?

    Can the Park Service, beyond a shadow of doubt, assure the citizens of American that these backfires did not contribute to or create wildfire?

    There was a report of an isolated fire within the vicinity of Twin Creeks Research Facility. Was this fire started from embers of the Chimneys Tops Fire 2 or backfire? Of course if we knew when these backfires were ignited, then this question may or may not be relevant?

    Will the people have their questions answered by non-bias experts that could actually study the terrain where these backfires were ignited to try and determine if backfire got out of control?

    Even though the Chimneys Tops Fire 2 had embers blowing ahead of the initial fire itself, there were reports of winds knocking down power lines and igniting fire as well. Yet these intentionally set “backfires” have NOT been addressed by the Media.

    If the people can’t get ACCOUNTABILITY from the Dept. of Interior; then our only appeal is to a new administration that claims it is going to hold Government accountable. Time well tell.


    1. BACKFIRES: Also called defensive or desperation firing. Not to be confused with BURNING OUT. I don’t know where back-burn came from, slang? A TRUE back fire is NOT that common of a wildfire practice. Many people get back fires confuse with burning out. Burning out is allowing a fire fighter to ignite a fire which retreat away from a non flammable barrier i.e. road, mineral line, stream, rocks consuming vegetation which creates a “black” zone. The burning out of the fire is not under the influence of the main fire. Burning out is a common practice to eliminating (cleaning up) a fires perimeter. Burning out operations very rarely allow for an escape. The fire fighters are in control of the ignition sequence and usually not in a compressed time frame. Control burns, frequently do escape. A fire fighter isn’t working with an existing fire and is attempting to remove unwanted fuels through management of fire. Burning out (finishing the job) is usually a part of prescription (planned) fuel removal by fire. Back fires as it may pertain to Chimney 2, remember desperation firing?

    2. Great questions. I hope we find out the answers to them soon. Yes, they believe the fire at Twin Creeks was from the Chimney Tops 2 Fire. The night before the Gatlinburg fire all NPS personnel went home and slept as the fire was left to burn. Nobody was monitoring the fire through the night. When they awoke the next morning, the Twin Creeks fire was spotted. Then it was too late.

  8. In regard to the upcoming Multi-Agency review of the Chimney Tops Fire 2:

    Will this agency “investigate” the 1st Chimney Tops Fire of Nov 12th/13th, 2016 and if the NPS response time correlates to the response time of the 2nd Fire of the 23rd to 28th, 2016?

    Although the Deputy Superintendent of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Clay Jordon, did give an explanation in the Winter 2016/17 issue of Smokies Guide as to the difference between the 1st Chimney Tops Fire of the Nov 12/13th, 2016 in comparison to the 2nd Chimney Tops Fire 2 of Nov 23rd to 28th, 2016 of being in different locales, most sources still indicate that both these fires ignited near the summit in close proximity to one another. Though the terrain of Chimney Tops Fire 2 may have been more difficult to access by foot for fire crews than the 1st fire, it is definitely clear that fire crews were not aggressive with the 1st fire – taking some 4 to 5 days to extinguish the fire and reopen the trail on Nov 17th.

    The NPS social media press release below clearly shows the NPS took a “monitoring” position with the 1st fire: Though the press release date was on the 14th, and indicates crews working the fire on the 13th, one person on social media posted a photo claiming the fire was started on the 12th of November? Regardless of the date being the 12th or 13th, there is still a 4 day period before the fire was apparently fully extinguished?

    Great Smoky Mountains National Park added 2 new photos.
    Error! Hyperlink reference not valid. •
    Park Closes Trails Due to Small Wildfire
    “A Great Smoky Mountains National Park firefighting crew continues to monitor the 0.25 acre wildfire burning near the summit of the Chimney Tops Trail. The fire currently remains within the containment area established by the crew yesterday. Trails are expected to remain closed through Tuesday, November 15.”

    Without getting into all the details of terminology, it is clear that fire crews contained and monitored the fire before extinguishing it – simply allowing it to burn for a certain amount of time. When this time response to the 1st fire is compared to the NPS response to the 2nd fire, there is an apparent pattern of how to deal with fire under extreme conditions. My observation along with countless other folks is a SLOW response time.

    The NPS was not aggressive with the 1st Chimney Tops Fire; and they were not aggressive enough with the 2nd Chimney Tops Fire. Here are apparently 2 separate fires with the same response time. You be the judge.

    Was the NPS response with the 1st fire aggressive enough considering the extreme conditions with excessive fuels and 2016’s drought conditions?

    Why has the NPS been vague and evasive with the 1st fire and is it still under investigation if it was arson related or not?

    Should the NPS have acted more aggressively with the 1st fire as well as the 2nd fire; and why were both fires treated the same in regard to response time?


  9. This is good news. I assume this team has no affiliation with the local Forestry people of fire services people? Those of us who live or on property down there or very skeptical that if the local officials were negligent and more so if the local officials were negligent Or civilly liable, can we assume that the very real good old boy network that exists there or as we used to say professional courtesy be considered?

    First and foremost we want to see some real reform on how they respond to wildfires. Secondly we want to see closure for the families of the deceased . Lastly those of us who incurred considerable financial loss even with a good insurance would like to get our pound of flesh. Most of the professionals I know, as I was in fire and EMS for years Are of the opinion that they should have attacked that fire with everything they had and anything they could muster the day and broke out.

    My wife and I want to thank you for the great service you’re providing to us as we are sharing all comments with friends of ours that on homes in Chalet Village North, the hardest hit. 540 cabins before the fire and only 20 remain.


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