NPS official talks about the wildfire that burned into Gatlinburg

Gatlinburg fire Greg Salansky

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.’ ”

They continued to scout the fire, including working through some rocky terrain after they left their packs behind to make it easier to climb through the rocks while carrying their firefighting tools. Mr. Salansky determined that some portions of the fire edge were “unnavigable” and “there was no way we can get anybody in here safely, and there is no way we can cut this thing off.”

On November 25 (day #3) he met with the Chief Ranger and they decided not attempt to construct direct fire line on the edge of the fire, but to back off. They identified creeks and drainages that had some utility as natural barriers and drew a “box” on a map that encompassed 410 acres. That day, according to Mr. Salansky, low clouds prevented the use of any firefighting aircraft.

map Chimney Tops 2 Fire
A map posted by GRSM near the Chimney Tops 2 Fire, dated November 27, 2016. Photo by Brett Bevill.

On November 26 (day #4) when the fire was about eight acres, Mr. Salansky said they looked at a proposed fire line in a drainage “to see if it’s doable, and trying to find a way to put in line from the top down.” There was a trail across the ridge south of the fire that they figured could be the beginnings of a fire line from which a constructed line might be built to the north to connect with the river in the drainage below the highway. But, he said, “it’s vertical, it’s steep, and there’s not a comfort level there”.

“On 90 percent of [the perimeter of the box]”, Mr. Salansky said, “we’ve got good natural drainages and natural areas that would kind of keep that fire hemmed in.”

He said that night he received word that a wind event was in the forecast for the afternoon of the 28th.

November 27 (day #5) brought lower humidities and an increase in fire activity with the fire having grown by backing down the hill overnight to about 20 to 25 acres by morning. Mr. Salansky said that at that point they were still not sure if the proposed fire line was “doable”.

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

That day, five days after the fire started, was the first time that any firefighting aircraft were used on the fire. That afternoon a Chinook, a Type 1 helicopter (Type 1’s are the largest helicopters used on wildfires), began dropping water on the fire. Mr. Salansky said he expected the Chinook to refill its water bucket at Fontana Lake 13 miles to the southwest, but instead, it was able to dip out of the river below the fire. It worked until it had to refuel and then the crew in an Air Attack aircraft over the fire asked if he wanted two more helicopters, and Mr. Salansky said yes. So two other Type 1 helicopters took the place of the Chinook until dark. They were unable to dip water from the river so they refilled with water at Fontana Lake, with each making approximately three drops, he said.

3-d map chimney tops fire
A 3-D map of the Chimney Tops 2 Fire, looking south, showing the 35-acre perimeter on November 27.

Sunset that day was at 5:21 p.m. which would have allowed them to work on the fire until 5:51 p.m., 30 minutes after sunset.

Mr. Salansky asked the group he was talking to last week on the highway if a hotshot crew could put in a fire line on one of the spur ridges he pointed to, saying, “I was a hotshot for four years. I’ve been to Hells Canyon, I’ve been in Southern California,  and I’ve worked in places, and, you know, feasibly, you know, it’s just not there. Especially here. I’m not even thinking, at this time, you know — this is a day-by-day thing. And I’m not thinking we’re going to have an 80 mile an hour wind event and it’s going to blow this fire all to hell. I’m thinking we’ll have some wind but nothing like that.”

Air Attack asked if Mr. Salansky wanted an air tanker to drop retardant on the fire, perhaps across the top of a ridge. He considered the river down below which, he said, was the water source for Gatlinburg, and also the cost: “We’re always taught, fight fire safely, cost effectively. What is a tanker drop that will cost $20,000 or $10,000 going to buy me? At this time I’ve got a 25-acre fire.” So he turned down the fixed wing air tanker retardant drops.

An 8-person fire module arrived the evening of the 27th. Mr. Salansky took them to a location where they could overlook the fire, but there was not a lot of active flame visible. He told them that is where they would be working the next day on the 28th. He was also counting on two Type 6 BIA engines “on the other side of the mountain” being available along with the 8-person module.

He knew the wind predicted for the next day would be from the south. He said he was counting on the river on the north side to be a barrier and secondarily the highway just north of the river. And, the fact that the fire was over five miles from Gatlinburg.

On November 28 (day #6) the first employees from the Park to see the fire were a maintenance crew at 7 a.m., who reported it, saying the fire was near the picnic area below the highway. A briefing with the 8-person fire module was scheduled for 8 a.m., but Mr. Salansky asked them to instead go the picnic area check it out. When they arrived, they confirmed the location and began protecting the structures at the site. Soon thereafter a 50-acre spot fire was seen that had become established north of the highway, about a mile and a half from the main fire.

He said when the spot fire was discovered the winds were blowing at about 30 mph, and, “the winds were not forecast to be here until that evening, like at 4 o’clock that afternoon. But they kind of came in early.”

weather Chimney Tops 2 Fire
A portion of the spot weather forecast for the Chimney Tops 2 Fire issued the morning of November 27, 2016.

In fact, however, the spot weather forecast (above) issued at 7 a.m. November 27 predicted winds of 12 mph gusting to 25 for 7 a.m. on November 28, increasing to 15 mph and gusting at 30 by noon, and 20 mph gusting to 40 at 6 p.m. It also predicted a chance of rain showers in the afternoon. Mr. Salansky had submitted the request for that forecast, and included the comment, “Concerned about ridgetop winds with the coming front. Thanks!”

Mr. Salansky said after he saw the expansion of the fire the morning of the 28th he requested four hotshot crews, but, he said, “they just laughed at me. They’re like, there are no hotshot crews around, you know. So I said, ‘What can you give me?’ They said ‘we’re going to give you two Type 2 crews and two Type 2 Initial Attack crews but they are going to be two days out’. I’m like, ‘Order them. Give me what you’ve got’.

He explained to the group that there were other fires in the southeast and there was a shortage of firefighting resources. Also, he said, he ordered air resources that morning at 7:30. When Air Attack got over the fire they said due to the visibility there was no way that helicopters could work the fire, so his request was denied and Air Attack returned to Chattanooga.

The fact that the 50-acre spot fire was about 1.5 miles from the main fire told him “We’ve got some crazy erratic stuff going on.” The fire was spotting from ridge top to ridge top. At about 9:30 or 10 a.m. he called Gatlinburg Fire Department to give them an update on the fire. When at 11:30 a.m. another spot fire was reported near the Twin Creeks Science and Education Center (which is also the location of the fire management office) about four miles north of the main fire, about 1.5 miles from Gatlinburg, he moved the engines and the 8-person module around to that end of the fire where they went into structure protection mode. He began calling some of the local agencies that had wildland fire units, but most of them had at least a two to three hour response time. He also requested a Type 3 Incident Management Team that had an ETA of 6:30 p.m.

“All this happened in 12 hours. When somebody compares one fire to another”, Mr. Salansky said, “and how people are able to make contact with individuals and incorporate evacuation procedures and all this, sure, I could do that here if I had a 30-day window. When we have a 12-hour window you’re reacting to doing the best that you can at the time. Again, I don’t have the forethought of what all you guys have experienced over the last six months. I’m living this hour-by-hour as it unfolds. I don’t have a crystal ball saying this is what’s going to happen in three hours. ”

“People can say things. People have said things. They blame me for this. You know, if it makes them feel better, then let them do it. This is not my first fire I’ve ever been on, I’ve got some experience. I’ve been all over the country. I’ve fought fire in a lot of places.”

Shortly after Mr. Salansky began meeting with the group on the side of the highway last week he said at least twice, “I am aggressive”, in describing his philosophy for suppressing wildfires.

Rob Klein, the Fire Ecologist for Great Smoky Mountains National Park, said one thing that made the repair of damage from fire suppression activities easier was that “no containment lines were built”.

Mr. Salansky said that about 1 p.m. on the 28th he met with the fire chiefs of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge. “I kind of  tell them what’s going on, what the potential is. I kind of recommended evacuations of my park and the vicinity.”

At about 6:04 p.m. Mr. Salansky first heard that the fire had moved in to Gatlinburg.

Mr. Salansky told the group last week about a meeting that occurred in the Gatlinburg area before the fire. “A month before all this happened, the National Wildland Coordinating Group was actually here, the Risk Management group and their Heavy Equipment group met here……. I kind of talked and we talked about the urban interface and they were like, you know, ‘What’s your evacuation process here?’ You know, I’ve seen this town and it’s bumper to bumper, I said, you know, ‘Who knows how you get people out of here.’ You can get police in here, you can, you know, get folks evacuated but there’s only two ways out of here.”

Gatlinburg structures damaged destroyed
Map showing structures affected by fire in the Gatlinburg area. Red represents destroyed structures, while yellow and green indicate damaged structures. ESRI.

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. Google+

41 thoughts on “NPS official talks about the wildfire that burned into Gatlinburg”

  1. Bill was the condition of the fuels discussed during this talk? I’m very curious to know what fuels were available and how intense they were burning. Was the drought making just about everything, live or dead, available? Or what was that piece of the puzzle here? Months later it’s still hard for me to process this fire given the typical fire behavior I’ve seen in Eastern fuel models.

    1. See my comment below about dead hemlocks. This is a new piece of the puzzle; the hemlock die-off from adelgid infestation has happened in the past 10-20 years. Not only are there forests full of standing dead conifers in the Smokies, but they are being replaced by deciduous trees that do not shade the forest floor during the winter, impacting all of the vegetation.

  2. Poor justifications for poor leadership and poor decision making on Mr Salinsky’s action’s–he should be fired!—but he will not. Remember the 14 civilian lives lost first and foremost.

    1. Thanks for remembering our families who lost a family member that fateful evening. Those people lost it all, and their horror that evening, what they must have gone through, and the thought of being burned alive has impacted ours and all 14 families forever.

      1. They did have emergency sirens. They didn’t use them. Come to find out, only 1 worked anyways. If I’m not mistaken, they used it after people had evacuated or were running for their lives already. I do know that they are in the process of installing more sirens and evacuation signs that have reflectors and can be seen through smoke.

    2. It’s easy to armchair quarterback. You should try wearing his shoes, I guarantee you won’t come close to filling them.

  3. At the risk of repeating myself…….About the statement, “They identified creeks and drainages that had some utility as natural barriers…”: The creeks and drainages in the Smokies are no longer necessarily natural barriers to fire; they’re full of dead hemlocks (unless they’ve already burned or have been treated, as at the Chimney Tops picnic area). In fact, several years ago I noted that the forest below the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail loop road was especially thick with standing dead hemlocks. I believe that was one of the areas where the fire burned quite fiercely and picked up energy as it “roared” toward Roaring Fork Road and Gatlinburg.
    Just a thought: If indeed the standing dead hemlocks were a significant portion of the fuel for the fire, that might explain why the fire was burning “higher” than expected and not following the normal route of fires fueled on the ground.
    We can’t change what happened. But we CAN take into account for the future that this is not the forest of 20 or even 10 years ago. The rules have changed.

  4. In response to Salansky’s timeline above:

    Why didn’t Salansky mention the use of “backfire” to protect Park structures? Was the main fire actually causing a spot fire at 11:30 am on the 28th (Monday) at Twin Creeks Research Facility according to NPS reports and Salansky; or was this so-called spot fire actually from backfire to protect Twin Creeks?

    The NPS stated that backfire was used to protect the Bud Ogle Cabin which is just about a quarter of a mile or so from Twin Creeks. If the NPS used backfire to protect the Bud Ogle Cabin; then most likely it would be assumed that they used backfire to protect Twin Creeks. According to the timeline above by Salansky, the winds were about 30 mph around noon on the 28th; so if the NPS is working to protect structures on the 28th; it seems apparent that they are igniting backfires with winds up to 3o mph? Given the nature of the drought conditions, and excessive fuels, the question remains if these “backfires” to protect NPS structures got “out of control” and were another addition to the main fire?

    If this so-called spot fire at 11:30 am around the Twin Creeks Research Center was from the Chimney Tops 2 Fire; then shouldn’t there have been more spot fires in the vicinity reported at this time? One would think that the main fire would have rolled into Gatlinburg sooner if this was the case? The timeline of this spot fire around noon doesn’t add up for me? The question remains unanswered: At what time did NPS ignite these backfires to protect the Bud Ogle Cabin and Twin Creeks?

    Was Backfire used to protect the Chimney Tops Picnic Area; and did the backfire get out of control and contribute to fire along Sugarlands Mountain? If backfire was used in and around the Chimneys Picnic Area; here again, did the backfire get “out of control” and cross 441 (Newfound Gap Road)? Was backfire used to protect Park housing and maintenance buildings behind Headquarters? If so, what time were these backfires ignited; and did these backfires get out of control and contribute to, or create the fire that rolled up Ski Mountain?

    I have put an emphasis on this subject because all Park Structures were apparently unscathed according to the NPS; and it has been a subject with very little or NO discussion?

    Being that NPS has a track record of not being forthcoming and the stand-off attitudes from numerous officials; and how some victims are being treated; then this type of questioning is totally justified under a Democracy which is eroding away when government looks the other way; or seeks to suppress the TRUTH?


    1. Excellent points. I went to Twin Creeks a week after the fire. Blackened ground reached the rocks surrounding the building. At the time I was amazed how close the fire had gotten without damage to the building. Now, it makes sense that a backfire may have been lit. I do know that employees were using leaf blowers at HQ to get leaves away from buildings on the day of the fire.

  5. Wow. He used “kind of” a lot. To me, it shows being unsure of himself. The fire ecologist’s comment about there being no containment lines contradicts Mr. Salansky and other officials’ comments. If he was truly “aggressive”, he would have ordered air tankers much sooner. Possible his hands were tied by higher ups due to budgeting. Having no 24hr fire monitors was a stupid mistake. Not sure why Gatlinburg officials did not begin evacuations if he really recommended it. Who do you believe in this catastrophic act of negligence? No immediate attack during extreme drought + no containment lines + no air tankers + no 24hr fire monitor + no evacuation orders = 14 deaths and 2400 homes and businesses destroyed. There needs to be a review with punitive actions!!

  6. There are many variables not taken into account here, TN or Region 8 does not operate or have anywhere near the resources of say Region 5, 3 or 4. Traditional Western forest have more fire resources on their forest and possibly districts then entire states in the south. Local FDs and state agency’s are not equipped or trained adequately in wild land fire suppression let alone urban interface. This occurred when the majority of national resources were laid off from the western fire season. All shot crews and westerns resources showing up to support region 8 efforts were conglomerations of mixed resources. I can’t recall a single shot crew operating in the region that wasn’t comprised of perms and overhead from multiple shots crews, engines, etc. to make the numbers and this was by far not the only show in town. Georgia and North Carolina at the time had the highest priority incidents going on and were consuming all national and regional resources. This fire was not on the radar for GACCs as a high priority. To say that a drainage in the Appalachians was not an effective barrier because it wasn’t flowing water is also inaccurate, traditional fuels to the region normally would not support fire in drainage’s. The fuels in the area were extremely dry and tactics that local resources were able to implement in the past were not effective. Lastly no one has yet to mention that the Chimney Tops fire was not the only ignition source. With the winds gusting upwards of 80 mphs multiple power lines were arcing creating new spot fires independent and ahead of the main fire, and then there is the ignorance of private land owners who may have been attempting back fires around their property with no regard of knowledge of what they were doing.

    1. Only referring to fire in the Park. I know electrical wires was an ignition source in the city. It wasn’t in the Park. They should have known that tactics in the past wouldn’t work given the extreme drought conditions. It’s common sense. Salansky is just giving excuses to cover his ass. Too many contradicting statements by NPS officials.

    2. “…traditional fuels to the region normally would not support fire in drainage’s…”…..Do you believe that all the dead hemlocks were a factor in the spread of the fire? They are certainly not a “traditional fuel”.

    3. I’m sorry, Cory Ryan, but the resources may not be the same in R8, BUT, was the request put through SACC to get more? Sounds to me that they kept it State to State, nor GSNP and Tennessee Coordination Center? Who was dispatching? What requests actually went throug SACC? I don’t buy it unless Salanskt was told by higher ups than he that nothing else would be ordered in order to keep the cost down. They may not have wanted a slurry drop on the river since it goes into and/or through the park.,.Resource Mgmt. wouldn’t want that to happen I could almost bet. Nps will NOT try to go to SACC unless they absolutely have to which is what they needed to do to get more than regional resources. So don’t tell me that they weren’t available.

    4. Cory,

      Being that managed fire has a history of getting “out of control”, my questioning is totally legitimate in regard to backfire. Although you stressed some good points regarding civilians and backfire, you still give the impression of trying to get the heat off the NPS; if in case their backfires did get out of control? Smokescreen liability; and or slander/kill the messenger?? Below are some of my old questions on Wildfire Today in regard to backfire:

      “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?”

      “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.”


    5. Sevier County fire departments do train in Wildland/Urban Interface response. When we were designated the third largest Wildland/Urban Interface county in the Southeast we decided we needed to address training issues and set a standard for our firefighters. While we do have an in-county Wildland Taskforce-tones are set off for every fire department in the county and members with the appropriate training and equipment needed are sent to the requesting department to help with their fire-we cannot, by federal law, send more than half of our available resources on a mutual aid call. If the Taskforce is called out and I only have four of my volunteers available to answer calls in my territory that day, I can only send two personnel and one piece of fire apparatus. We have to make sure our own territory is covered in the event we have an emergency such as what happened the night of the 28th. And I struggle sending those two people out of my territory because in reality, how effective will the two people I have left be in fighting a structure or brush fire? And if we have 90+ mph winds on top of that? And how soon would those two get help because the departments I would normally get aid from in 10-15 minutes have already sent their available personnel to the other department requesting aid and aren’t available to me?
      We have approximately 300 firefighters in the county, both paid and volunteer agencies combined. Our resident county population in 2014 according to City Data was 95,110. That’s a fraction over 317 people per firefighter. That’s not counting the millions of visitors we see every year. To say we’re stretched thin when all 300+ firefighters ARE available is an understatement. Do the math on that one. Then subtract about half of the firefighters because the majority are volunteers who are at the job that pays rent/mortgage, puts food on the table, etc…
      That’s why we call for Regional Mutual Aid and in the case of November 28th, Statewide Mutual Aid, also. And help will not be arriving quickly from them because Regional Mutual Aid will be coming from the 16 counties surrounding us and travel time at the earliest can be an hour or more not counting the time it takes for them to assemble personnel just to get ready to deploy. Statewide Mutual Aid will be even longer. And many of these responding departments do not see brush/wildland fires like we do so they do not have any training on Wildland/Urban Interface fires let alone the proper Personal Protective Equipment to keep them safe.
      We have four paid departments and seven volunteer departments in Sevier County. We use TN Forestry S-190 and S-130 classes as basic wildland training to respond inside the county on a mutual aid Wildland Taskforce call. In order to respond to these types of calls personnel must have completed the S-190 and S-130 classes. This requirement is to give responding personnel the basic knowledge on how wildland fires can behave, how weather can affect a fire, how to keep themselves safe, and steps to take until Forestry gets there and can take over creating firelines with either bulldozers or hand crews. When they get there, we generally switch roles from wildland crew to structure protection and do our best to keep structures from becoming involved and causing further fire spread. Sevier County personnel are trained and issued personal protective equipment to help them be a part of the solution, not part of the emergency.
      Not many people realize other departments in the county had large fires as well the evening of November 28th. One area, mine in particular, lost 98 of 338 homes and another department lost somewhere between 50 and 60 homes. I do realize these two separate fires weren’t of the magnitude of the Gatlinburg Fire, but they were no less devastating to the individuals and families in those areas who lost their homes, pets, clothing, family heirlooms, and also ran for their lives with nothing but the clothing on their backs.
      I didn’t join the fire service 25 years ago to retreat from any emergency. There’s a problem and I want to fix it. I don’t have a person on my department that doesn’t feel the same way. When I had to tell my guys to unhook hoses and leave the burning houses I felt like I personally failed. Was I giving up too soon? Should we fight this fire a little a little longer? At least the propane pop-off valve is working so the danger of the propane tank exploding (BLEVE) is minimized. What if the propane inside the tank starts expanding quicker than the pop-off valve can handle and it explodes anyway? I ordered my guys to leave burning houses. I don’t regret making that decision because I know their safety is priority one, but I will always wonder if I could have done anything different to minimize the loss of homes on my fire. I was close to losing a fire truck because the windshield blacked over with smoke and the driver couldn’t see if he was backing in the driveway behind him or off the hill on his left. Flames were hitting the fuel tank on the side of the truck and he was just sitting there. I gave him 15 seconds to get the truck moving or bail out and leave it. And 15 seconds was probably too long, but he was able to clear a spot on the windshield and get the truck off the mountain. I would have left that truck in a heartbeat to ensure the safety of my firefighters.
      In Sevier County, we firefighters had seen what we thought at the time were extreme wind speeds and large losses of homes and rental cabins. Until this year, 75 cabins in 2013 was the biggest property loss we’d ever experienced. In November, when faced with extremely dry weather conditions and wind speeds this county has never, ever seen, we didn’t have the luxury of experience to help in the decision making process. You can read about someone else’s experience and gain some knowledge from it, but when I had WELL SEASONED U.S. Forestry firefighters from Oregon, Utah, and Arizona to name just a few crews, tell me THEY had never seen anything like how these fires behaved, I knew there wasn’t a whole lot more I could have asked my guys to do and virtually no decisions I could have made to get a better outcome. I was blessed in that all my guys were safe and relatively uninjured (one too a flaming ember to the face) and no human lives were lost during my Cobbly Nob Fire November 28th. But it will always bother me that I got beat by the fire that night. I don’t accept defeat well. All I can do is figure out how I can do better when faced with a situation like this again. Because it will happen again.

      1. Rosemary,

        Your account is to be respected as well as your honesty. Maybe I should have been more precise about officials; but I was addressing “higher” ups – not the folks on the ground. The men and women on the ground were in harm’s way as you know from experience. Thank you and all the fire fighters for their hard work amid this unfortunate event.


        1. I apologize-my comments were more directed toward Cory Ryans’ statement, “Local FDs and state agency’s are not equipped or trained adequately in wild land fire suppression let alone urban interface.” I am new to this site and obviously didn’t reply in the proper spot. Forestry crews didn’t arrive in Cobbly Nob until Thursday, December 1st. My guys in were commended several times by the U.S. Forestry crews for the work they did in trying to “contain” the fire. I have a relatively young department with the majority being 20-25 years old and less than 7 years in the fire service. This was the biggest fire that I’ve ever been on and in my 25 years in the fire service in Sevier County I’ve been on some big ones. This was not just a yardstick for us to measure future fires by; it was a mileage marker. There’s just not a whole lot to do with winds that bad and fire so hot that the “deadman” in a retaining wall was completely burned and left a five foot deep horizontal hole in the bank beside the foundation except keep an eye out and don’t let yourself get trapped.

  7. Who was dispatching for the fire, and what were their quals? Has anyone pulled dispatch records from GSNP, SACC, Cherokee Dispatch which it sounds like they were talking to at least for air support? These records should be key to showing what exactly was done on the ground in Gatlinburg in the days preceding and during the fire.

  8. Get ready Folks. This interview is going to be the same kind of posturing and pandering that is going to come from the “Individual Fire Review”, that is being cleverly crafted to blow smoke up your natural drainage. Unless the facts about the aircraft sitting on the tarmac in Chattanooga are false, then there’s really no excuse for the inaction. While Greg was trying to do the best he could in a serious situation, there has been no mention of Cash and Jordan being involved in any of the his decision and only him meeting with the Chief Ranger to maker a decision. Salansky is low on the totem pole and it is clear Cash is trying to throw him under the bus laying the blame Salansky is responsible for putting out the fire. The Chief Ranger is responsible for ALL visitor and resource protection and he is the one to make the critical decisions concerning the protection for this and his priority is making sure the evacuations, medical and emergency personnel and all resources are ordered to get the job done. Once the fire was out of control an INCIDENT COMMAND, should have been convened and”Crisis Management” should have taken priority and the ONGOING COMMUNICATION with all cities, property owners and news media should have been implemented to ensure the public was aware of the imminent threat of a catastrophe. This was not done. This is the Chief Rangers responsibility until the fire is assigned an “overhead” with an assigned team leader. He is getting a free ride while Greg is taking all the heat. The excuses given are pathetic and without proper oversight that requires the “expertise” of Cash and Jordan and Kloster who have these management positions who are suppose to be highly qualified to be in these positions but are only there because of social appointments. Agreed this was critical terrain access, but the equation was fire-steep terrain-SEVERE DROUGHT-heavy fuels-no containment boundaries. This should have stepped up the attack knowing the fire can consume the heavy fuels and easily get out of control. This would have meant not going to bed, staying on the job all night making phone calls and getting ALL of your resources available for the next day. Remember in 1991, documented in the Smokies Fire Plan it was observed crowning, torching, and “spot fires” were observed in drought conditions so there was proper warning in advance the fire could and would get worse. It appears the only resource available were aircraft that have been identified as ready and could have been dispatched. These aircraft could have been loaded with slurry or plain water to make drops on a fire that was identified the size of a football field. The excuse concerning the cost is irrelevant because the cost is not incurred by the park because it is paid for by an interagency fire account. The “red slurry” or retardant may be toxic if it was dumped directly into a creek. The red slurry retardant is nothing more than 85% water and 5% fertilize with a couple of other ingredients that probably consist of oregano and cayenne pepper to make it a little tastier. The coloring is added to identify where it lays on the terrain and the fertilize helps restore plant growth and it can be authorized for use by the “SUPERINTENDENT” that would be Cash. Whether it would have stopped or retarded the fire is an unknown, but with all the reports, it appears air attack was the only avenue available to suppress the fire. Unless things have changed scout planes fly and make the determination for flight patterns and access to the fire. Being a retired Park Ranger for 30 years, having worked in the Smokies for 13 years and fighting fires, including large western fires and managing serious emergencies, rescues and law enforcement incidents, I see the political and ongoing collusion to mislead the public that has been prevalent within the park service for a long time. Looks like more promotions are in order here.

    1. Jerry is 100% correct here – not only with how the fire was improperly handled; but with the bureaucracy as well. The mismanagement and ongoing cover ups/denials of the NPS is not only with fire and forestry; but with wildlife and a host of other issues as well. Gatlinburg Officials never supported folks in the past who attempted to address NPS management issues. City officials said we were wrong. The Park labeled us as troublemakers. Gatlinburg continued to cater to NPS agendas and fully supported whatever propaganda the NPS promoted.

      Now the tide has turned and the NPS and their mismanagement of natural resources and their negligence with this fire has contributed to the devastation of the community. Civilian concerns fell on deaf ears. NPS officials were condescending and or evasive when issues were addressed. Not only did they discriminate/slander dedicated NPS personnel who tried to stand up for the TRUTH like Jerry; they made every attempt to discredit civilians who questioned some of their agendas and management.

      May the survivors of this unfortunate tragedy find peace and strength; and in time, maybe a handful of officials (federal, state/county, & city) will finally admit to their shortcomings and vindicate those folks who have only been striving for the TRUTH.

      Thanks again Jerry,


  9. Politics, personalities, communications and just plain bad luck seem to be common in this event.

  10. I was a volunteer firefighter in Georgia before I moved to Gatlinburg. I lived on Wiley Oakley. We didn’t think we would make it out alive. You guys entered the gates of Hell that night. You did all you could. You did what you could.

  11. It’s pretty well established that most, if not all, of the fires that occurred outside of the park were a result of wind-driven power line and transformer sparks. Heck, you can even hear the publicly available department of forestry radio logs describe several of the power line fires as they happen. So what agenda are you trying push with “…the fire that after six days burned into Gatlinburg,…”? Do you have the results of an investigation that proves otherwise that you can share on your web site? I’m curious how the Cobbley Knob fire, many miles east of the main complex, was a result of a fire that originated in the park.

    1. Do you have the results of an investigation that proves the fire that started in the park did not spread outside of the park? Yes, there are reports that the wind downed power lines that started some fires. The exact perimeter of those fires, and the fire that started in the park, have not yet been disclosed. Some of them no doubt burned together, which makes it difficult to answer that question, however, a trained and experienced wildland fire cause and origin investigator should be able to figure it out. Maybe the official report will shed some light.

      I have not seen any reliable reports saying, as you contend, the fire in the park did not spread outside the park.

    2. When we were accepting donations for fire victims at our Pittman Center Fire Dept. Station 2, a group from Atlanta drove up with much appreciated donations. A U.S. Service Firefighter and myself were discussing my fire in Cobbly Nob when a gentleman from the group came up and told us, “Well I’ve got a good friend that retired from the park and he said that the Cobbly Nob started from an ember being blown from the Chimneys! They can travel some distance, you know!” While the wind was fierce that night an ember from the Chimneys hot enought to ignite another fire 12 miles away as the crow flies is almost impossible. And I say “almost” because as learned from Nov. 28th. anything can happen. There are too many hills and valleys between Cobbly Nob and the Chimneys for that ember to fall-Montgomery Woods, Glades Rd, Buckhorn Rd, Grassy Branch, Emerts Cove, and Hickey Rd-to name a few, and still be hot enough to start a fire. My Cobbly Nob Fire was started by a witnessed tree blown onto a power line of which I informed the gentleman from Atlanta. We’ll never know how many fires in Sevier County were started the exact same way on Nov. 28th and blamed on the Chimneys Fire, but I KNOW how Cobbly Nob started.

  12. Conspiracy theory or actual facts. Anyone knowing the terrain, fire fighting techniques, fire behavior etc. may think about what my friend passed on to us. My reply to him follows:

    I analyzed what you have referred to and find I just missed what may have occurred. You are right the fire was traveling more northeast that came up on Baskins and Roaring Fork and Twin Creeks and the fire would basically be passing the area of park headquarters. From what I can tell the fire that consumed this area was different than the fire that consumed Ski Mountain and Wiley Oakley. after it was confirmed by Assistant Superintendent Jordan it had jumped 441, “hopscotching” the ridge tops of Bullhead and began traveling down Sugarland Valley. The winds were driving it in this direction north, northeast towards Gatlinburg as no fire breached the area of Fighting Creek Gap or Cove Mountain, but stayed the course along the park boundary to Ski Mountain and Wiley Oakley and the By Pass and that would make the fire travel in the direction, more towards Gatlinburg and along 441 on either side. There was a video posted by a History Assoc. employee but it has been taken down and we know the employees were blowing leaves as witnessed by people who traveled to the park seeking answers. It will be interesting to see the bullshit Fire Review that should include all the avenues the fire traveled. A trained investigator can reconstruct the fire path. Really makes sense they backfired at the last minute to save HQ and the houses and may be where all the firefighters were. With this said if they did this there had to be some planning to do this to get a half ass organized detail together to accomplish this. If they did this without communicating and planning for safe zones and evacuation routes and they diverted the fire up to Ski Mountain it makes sense of how the path of the fire had split entering lower elevation of Sugarland Valley with the fire consuming Wiley Oakley and Ski Mountain. If this is this could be proven, there are “criminal” issues concerning manslaughter and possible murder charges under the United States Code Title 18 if it is proven they have lied or mislead the investigation and contributed to the deaths and injury that occurred. Don’t know how to get this info checked into but it is a fact out of 5 days and only 2 firefighters were clearing the evacuation route?? Where were the rest of the firefighters that should have numbered at least 6 crews of about 80-100 firefighters not counting the engine companies of at least 5 each. You have raised some pretty important issues and if this was investigated properly, interviews and evidence would most definitely confirm the truth. The easy way to find out is just have someone ask Cash if they did set the backfires. He has the authority to answer with a simple yes or no. Not a conspiracy theory, but facts that need clarified. It is already proven the NPS has already attempted to mislead everyone. Guess we will have to wait for the bullshit Fire Review to see if there is going to be political posturing and more cover up and if it is going to identify and include these important interviews and evidence. They have already stated this is not a punitive review so the investigation is already structured to withhold facts and mitigate the investigative results. Thanks for the info and I will share this on facebook for others consider. Maybe things are on the up and up but I have first hand experience with this bunch and I know they will lie.

  13. Cobbly Knob was a result of power lines. Ski Mtn Rd was from Park fire. I saw it coming from Gatlinburg Trail and into town as we were driving through the flames and praying to God we would make it. The heat was unbearable. We saw where it was also coming from the Bypass and down the hill crossing to the other side of Ski Mtn Rd. Homes were fully involved in that area. Everything was on fire. It was also entering town at Light #10 just past NOC. So, fire on that side of town was completely caused by the Park fire. I know for a fact because I saw it. I saw where it was coming from. I saw its path. A fire truck sat across from the water plant and watched it. No firefighters got out. So, for the 3rd time, I dialed 911 and reported the fully involved structure. Not long after, the hotels and businesses next to it caught fire and burned to the ground. Why those firefighters sat within eyesight and let that happen, I’ll never know. But those are the fires that I know for a fact were caused by fire in the Park.

  14. Dear Wildfire Survivor,

    Before addressing the Gatlinburg Fires again, my prayers and thoughts are with the scores of firefighters putting their lives at risk with this unprecedented fire season in the West. May God grant them strength and safety in fighting fire.

    Now to your observations and experience with the Gatlinburg Fires. They are not to be denied; and thank God you made it out alive.

    Though you may be correct that the fire you witnessed was from the actual Chimney Tops 2 Fire, or embers from the Chimneys Tops 2 Fire spot jumping and setting off other fires as it moved north to northeast; there still remains another unanswered possibility that what you witnessed could have been the results of man-made ignition fires that got “out of control”?

    Being that the NPS will not give a “detailed” timeline of management actions, or address backfire questioning, really brings up suspicion?? One can only speculate?

    I hope the NPS (Dept of Interior) and their cherry-picked investigators do not “fudge” the details of the events that unfolded. Personally, I’ve been ranting for real NON-BIASED fire investigators to assess the Chimney Tops 2 Fire in comparison to man-made ignition fires that could have gotten “out of control”.

    Here are just a few scenarios regarding what you “might” have witnessed in short:

    Was backfire used around the Sugarlands Riding Stables and horse trails (formerly McCarters)? If so, did these man-made ignitions get “out of control”? If fire was used here and did get out of control, then it would have traveled north – east of 441; and could have easily crossed over the road – into Town and up the By-Pass? The Stables did not burn; so that really brings up the question that a management action was used to protect Sugarlands Riding Stables?

    If NPS did use some type of burning technique (backfire/back-burn) around this section of the Park with such high winds; then the probability for it to get “out of control” is highly feasible?

    This brings up another question if they ignited fire east of 441 along Old Sugarlands Trail; and or any other trails and nearby water sources? Did they ignite fire south of Fighting Creek Gap Rd. in an attempt to “redirect” the main fire – creating a protected horseshoe pocket around Headquarters, and other structures in the vicinity like the riding stables, etc?

    Backfire may have been used late in the day with Headquarters and NPS structures in the vicinity (west of 441), showing that the timing of these possible ignitions is in sequence with fire rolling into Town and up the By-Pass? Could have east and west ignition fires converged; and then rolled into Town and up the By-Pass?? Again, all Park structures were protected and did not burn.

    With so many people asking questions and concerned about government negligence at most levels (Federal, State, & County,); then why isn’t this fire under Congressional Investigation? If the people and survivors are not satisfied with this forthcoming report; then they should appeal for a high court. Our Federal and State officials and other representatives should be seeking to protect and stand-up for the people; and not seek to protect the government here.

    When the reporter from North Carolina asked “who dropped the ball”; she was antagonistically chided from some government officials and citizens as well. She almost lost her job. Even though her timing may have been premature, just watch the news videos; and view the body gestures of government officials during her questioning. It is clear their interest is for the government; not for the TRUTH, or the people.

    God Help Us


    1. Tommy-

      I hear what you are saying.

      Many, many times on this site you have brought up the issue of backfires and burnouts, and suggested that they may have “gotten out of control” and implied that they caused more acres to burn than would have burned if those backfires or burnouts had not been used as a tactic.

      Backfires are generally used as a last resort when firefighters judge, using their training and experience, that the site they are defending would be impacted by the main fire. If they did not think the main fire would impact that particular site, they would not ignite the backfire. What usually happens is the backfire backs against the wind and eventually meets the head fire which is moving with the wind. Then the main fire burns around the protected site and spreads out of the area. The net effect on the overall fire is nil. The main fire would have burned around, or through, the site anyway. The backfire was used to burn off the fuel near the site so that when the main fire hit the area, there would be a blackened area without any remaining burnable fuel. As the main fire approached, the intensity around the protected site would, ideally, be reduced to the point where the site would not be damaged.

      Now if someone, using very poor judgement, used a backfire tactic to protect a site that would not otherwise have been engulfed by the main fire, miles away, then that backfire could become a completely new fire, unassociated with the main fire. Sometimes, rarely, private property owners in the west do this, if they panic and have no understanding of fire behavior and where the main fire or their backfire is likely to spread. I don’t know if this happened on the Chimney Tops 2 Fire, but it is irresponsible to suggest that it did if there is no evidence provided by a very experienced person having vast knowledge about wildland fire behavior.

      In summary, the use of backfires is a very acceptable practice when used by experience wildland firefighters. If in fact, the tactic was used, it does not indicate, by itself, poor judgement or negligence.

      Here is more information about backfires.

  15. Well said. The question of backfire has been raised by many. It looks more and more probable. It makes a lot of sense. We are prepared to petition for a higher level review resulting in punitive actions. Thank you.

  16. Rosemary,

    No apology needed. In fact I may need to lighten up on the issues. I’m sympathetic for firefighters. My experience is minimal in comparison to the men and women on the ground – day by day. What is frustrating is that firefighters are forced under extremes to use fire to fight fire; and run the risk of problems here. Though there are situations and terrain that controlled burns are the only feasible solution; it can’t be denied that some environmental/preservation forestry management practices are forcing firefighters into harms-way. Here they are forced to use control burns to reduce fuels. Though logging has been abused for financial gain without regard to the aftermath; the use of chainsaws and other timber management methods needs to be put back on the forefront once again. Though we cannot control drought and wind; how the land is managed can undoubtedly help to minimize the impacts of extreme weather. God gave us a brain and expects us to be good stewards of the land. When we deny Him; and pursue a so-called natural approach to land management; the results can be catastrophic. We are witnessing this across the Nation. Simply put, and without advocating a theocracy, I think some of the tree-huggers need to get out of office. Some of their practices are proving to be detrimental – not only to the environment; but for human health and safety.

    Thank you for your service.

  17. Well said, Mister Tommy, well said. I’ve always said, for my short time with the NPS, that they would rather care for the natural resources than people, and with last years fire I thinks that what’s they did. Let it burn, it’s natural, let it burn. We need to consider some of the Forest Service’s approach now but that will never happen.

  18. Dear Former NPS employee,

    Sadly, the USFS has been implementing some preservation forestry practices; yet not to the extent of the NPS. Special interest groups and political lobbying doesn’t help when one bias agenda with pitfalls dictates our public lands/resources. I’ll let this subject go for now; especially blowing up trees with dynamite – a waste of natural resources. Also, Bill has been a fair moderator. Sometimes I tend to hammer a topic way too much – whether I’m right, or wrong in my questioning. Thanks and take care. Tommy

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