Tempers flare in Gatlinburg as criticized wildfire evacuation gets political

Chimney Tops 2 Fire August 27, 2016

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.

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Author: Jason Pohl

In addition to writing for Wildfire Today, Jason Pohl reports on public safety-related issues for The Arizona Republic and USA TODAY.

13 thoughts on “Tempers flare in Gatlinburg as criticized wildfire evacuation gets political”

  1. While there were many factors that contributed to this unacceptable loss of life the main factor that I see is the National Park Service’s inability to properly manage fires that start on NPS land during high fire danger and drought conditions.

    1. Yes, that is where the negligence began. It trickled down to city officials before all was said and done.

    2. You are correct. Had the Park followed protocol and put out the fire in the five days of calm weather before the high winds, we wouldn’t have had this tragedy.

      Then again, we wouldn’t be so keenly aware of the shortcomings of the city’s handling of such situations. For example, the question was asked in March whether the city has developed an evacuation plan for such emergencies. Their answer is that there is no evacuation plan due to the mountainous terrain and the fact that there would be no way of knowing which roads might be blocked.

      However, a vacation cabin development called Sky Harbor – between Gatlinburg and nearby Pigeon Forge – does have designated and marked evacuation routes. Also, the terrain is arguably more rugged and the roads are more winding and steeper. If they can do it, I know that Gatlinburg can do it. We have citizens who are more than willing and equipped to ensure that an evacuation route remains clear in the event of an emergency.

  2. I was involved in the fires. I was told to stay put till further notice. No notice EVER came. Elected officials should be ashamed of themselves. Hopefully they are looking for other employment.

    1. I was told the same thing, at 7:45pm. I called the non-emergency police number after seeing on facebook that there was fire on the spur. I was told that the only areas being evacuated were Ski Mountain Road and Mynatt Park. Otherwise stay put to keep the roads open for emergency personnel.

  3. God bless Gatlingburg. I was in those fires. Officials told us not to evacuate till they informed us to. Amazing more people didn’t perish!

  4. The photo at the top of the story is not from the Gatlinburg fires or CT2 fire. I believe it is from the Walland fire which occurred earlier in either November or October. It is in another county.

    1. Appears this might have been mis-categorized in our file photo system. It has since been replaced. Thanks!

  5. That is not a picture of the Chimney Top 2 fire. It is a picture of the fire a month prior in Walland near the Foothills Parkway entrance.

    1. Appears this might have been mis-categorized in our file photo system. It has since been replaced. Thanks!

  6. Oh goodness…I wasn’t involved in the fire suppression efforts, but I went down on a disaster response team after the city was re-opened. While I’m not suggesting that the destruction was the fault of the homeowners, most of the lost homes could have been saved with proper Firewise building. Their wasn’t a single property in the area that I worked in that would have been even remotely defensible. Maybe the homeowners should quit relying so much on the government and take some more personal responsibility.

  7. Still waiting for justice from the park service,the city leaders and the boys that were said to have started the fires The truth needs to come out We were there and we know the truth about what happened in our area The fire we drovethru on Cove Mountain was a small bonfire and they let it burn several hours before trying to put it out We lost 3 homes because of this and at least 25 or so other chalets burned down also Witnesses also Time to lift the gag order and tell the truth instead of promoting tourism You reap what you sow

  8. As I see it it is way past time for change in this county no matter what! People in office for as long as some of these folks have been is nothing but a breeding ground for corruption period!! They act like they own the entire county its ridiculous telling people they can not speak, or to hush keep it quiet I just want to say WHO DO YOU THINK YOU ARE? Like I said ridiculous!!!

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