Looking back at the fatal wildfire that burned into Gatlinburg

14 people were killed and 2,500 structures were damaged or destroyed.

Chimney Tops 2 Fire Gatlinburg tennessee

Above: Chimney Tops 2 Fire at 9:37 p.m. November 28, 2016 after it had burned into Gatlinburg, Tennessee. Screenshot from the Knox News video.

(Originally published at 11:04 a.m. MST November 23, 2017)

As the one year anniversary of the deadly Chimney Tops 2 Fire approaches, Knox News will be publishing a series of articles about the fire that burned into Gatlinburg, Tennessee on November 28, 2016 killing 14 people, forcing 14,000 to evacuate, destroying or damaging 2,500 structures, and blackening 17,000 acres. Part 1 appeared yesterday along with the video below that includes interviews with first responders and residents, 911 recordings, and dash cam imagery of the fire in Gatlinburg.

Among other issues that came to light about how the fire was managed, the video has an example related to the evacuation. At 7:12 p.m. on November 28 the Gatlinburg Fire Department Captain that was the commander at the time of the firefighting forces working the wildfire in the city, recommended that the single siren, intended to be used for flood warnings, be activated to notify residents and tourists to evacuate. It was not done. Twice more he made the recommendation, at 7:15 and 7:50, but the 911 recordings did not detect a reply. At 8:20 p.m. the Fire Chief ordered a complete evacuation of the city and at 8:30 the siren was activated.

The article has quotes from a piece that we wrote on June 13, 2016 about the decisions made by Great Smoky Mountains National Park personnel during the first five days while the fire was much smaller.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Erik.
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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.

5 thoughts on “Looking back at the fatal wildfire that burned into Gatlinburg”

    1. Because the Attorney General was out of his jurisdiction to prosecute. A document that detailed mutual aid or agreements was found that had, if I remember correctly, a forged signature. It was all done incorrectly. The DA overstepped their jurisdiction. Then locals were told that it was going to be a federal case after that. That the NPS would pursue the criminal charges. But, for reasons unknown to most of us, that has not happened.

  1. I lived on that mountain that was on fire. My family escaped, barely, through those flames at approximately 7:35pm. The cost of calling in an air tanker would have been a lot less than what the NPS will now be paying for lawsuits filed by over 100 families, which will be in the millions.

  2. Thoughts (armchair). First out of the gate was hesitation due to the apparently small fire versus the cost of airdrops. That would be cost/benefit calculations by initial small footprint, not by threat potential. Yet, the serious conditions were well-known though – drought plus dead forest and a terrible terrain for ground teams, and ahead high winds forecast. With all that in place, there were plenty of people up the ranks who should have hustled out to take a look. If a First Responder actually had the idea that an air drop was justified by conditions, but hesitated, knowing the cost, that’s when the upper management needed to get out of office and confirm. A comprehensive study was done some years ago in MA about a persistent hesitation/reluctance of First Responders (EMT and paramedics) at accident incidents to call in the medical evacuation helicopters because of ‘cost’ worries. The study showed it wasn’t an extra cost to call in the helicopters and crews because these are already being paid for to sit around or not, but the First Responders hadn’t been informed by management to have a sense of that, so they passed on calling in air transport more than they should have. It’s just a marginal cost to pay for a bit more fuel if annual usage actually goes over budgeted projections. Everything else is already paid for.

    Second, it was sobering to hear how much dead forest thanks to pest/disease infestation was/is there in that greater forested area. Of all the roles for forest management to play that wasn’t done – containing and destroying the spread of tree-killing pests. (controlled burns and strategic cleared perimeters comes to mind first plus re-planting with other species.) Can think of two other places that have been not-managed to worrisome state. A lot of the slopes of the Shenandoah Mountains (Skyline Park) in Virginia are newer regrowth from what had been cleared homestead farmland years ago. So a lot of packed tall skinny trees that were never thinned. The tallest trees crowded the rest out so under the canopy in many places is effectively a forest of dead standing poles, never cleared. Then, there are stands of some of those bigger, taller trees that look alive and lush, but on closer inspection they are actually dead. The green canopy is from massive vines that choked them out. It’s very, very deceptive and many homes and weekend homes/neighborhoods have been built inside these areas with no clearing at all.
    The second area is quite shocking to see, it’s visible along – if memory serves correctly – Rte 160 in Colorado – miles and miles and miles and miles of hills and mountain slopes of completely dead forest – by some pest infestation, well-known to everyone apparently who lives around there. Terrible.

    1. I agree. But upper management did not have the required training needed for wildland fire events. Leadership had, thus far, put off their required training. Superintendent Cash had zero experience in wildland fire. His previous assignment was at National Monuments in Boston. The Fire Management Officer had only been in his position for a few months. He did not follow policy. Leadership didn’t have the proper training to know that he wasn’t following policy. There were only 2 or 3 firefighters on duty due to Thanksgiving leave. Personnel should have been recalled. A containment line was not constructed for days and there were no monitors around the clock. Nobody seemed to know how to do their job. Why? Because they did not take the time to attend their required training. Gatlinburg officials were told that the fire was under control. They had no idea that the NPS Management didn’t know what they were doing. That they lacked the required training. Once this goes to trial, I believe there will be a major shakeup and overhaul of Park Management here. I used to work for them. Many only have their position because of who they are buddies with or because of skin color. Not to be taken as a racist comment. Just to point out that the NPS is more concerned with their focus on diversity than experience.


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