At least seven employees of the National Park Service have tested positive for the coronavirus, or COVID-19. During the week of March 22 the superintendent of Great Smoky Mountains National Park said an employee there tested positive for the virus. The park on the Tennessee/North Carolina border was closed to the public on March 24, but many NPS sites remain open but have closed their visitor centers.
From the Washington Post, March 31, 2020:
In response to questions from The Washington Post, the agency said Tuesday that as of Monday, seven Park Service employees have tested positive for covid-19, the disease caused by the virus. That figure, which had not been previously reported, doesn’t include workers in the park who are not federal employees. “The NPS is working with our contractors and concessionaires to track reported cases of their employees as well,” Stephanie Roulett, a spokeswoman, wrote in an email.
The Park Service, a division of the Interior Department, will not identify where the affected employees are to protect their identities The infections came to light in a Wednesday teleconference when Park Service Director David Vela told workers, “this week, sadly, we received word of the first confirmed cases of NPS employees with covid-19.”
At Grand Canyon National Park, which drew large crowds over the weekend and remains open, park employees were informed Monday that a resident in the park’s housing complex on the South Rim has tested positive.
Roulett said no Park Service employee at Grand Canyon has been diagnosed with covid-19. Officials in Coconino County, which includes the park, have asked it to be shut down.
These seven NPS employees could be only the tip of the iceburg since such a small segment of the population in the United States has been tested for the virus. The essential service of fighting wildland fires cannot be carried out safely without making it mandatory for all firefighters to be tested, and on a regular basis. Symptoms of the disease only show up several days after the initial infection, but during that time the virus can spread to others. Without testing, fires may have to be left to burn, or just fought with air tankers and helicopters. Dispatching untested crews and incident management teams of firefighters when it is almost certain that some are shedding the virus, is dangerous and unethical.
In 2017 over 8,000 personnel were assigned to the Thomas Fire in southern California near Ventura.
More than 40 insurance companies are suing the federal government for $450 million over how the fire that burned into Gatlinburg, Tennessee in 2016 was handled, the Knox News is reporting.
Five days after it started in Great Smoky Mountains National Park on November 23 the Chimney Tops 2 Fire spread into the eastern Tennessee city killing 14 people, forcing 14,000 to evacuate, destroying or damaging 2,400 structures, and blackening 17,000 acres.
The strategy used to manage the fire was controversial in that very little direct action was taken to suppress the fire during those first five days until a predicted wind event caused it to spread very rapidly out of the park and into the city.
Below is an excerpt from an article at the Knox News:
The lawsuits blame the devastation on National Park Service officials. Fire managers violated their own policies, the complaints state, when they opted to let the blaze burn amid prolonged drought and forecasted high winds, then failed to monitor it or warn residents of the danger it posed.
The lawsuits single out Greg Salansky, the park’s fire management officer who first spotted smoke coming from the park’s Chimney Tops peaks on Nov. 23, 2016. Salansky didn’t attack the roughly acre-sized fire directly, didn’t dig containment lines initially and waited four days to order water drops by airplane and helicopter.
Earlier drops, the complaints read, could have easily extinguished the fire when it spanned just an acre and a half.
Instead, Salansky opted to try to contain the fire inside a 410-acre box in hopes of coming rain. He briefed higher-ups at the park, according to the complaints, but made no significant progress in containing the fire. It didn’t help that most of the fire crew’s staff was on vacation due to the holiday. No one called them in.
The National Park Service assembled an eight-person team to review the management of the Chimney Tops 2 Fire. Participants represented the NPS, U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Indian Affairs, Boone Fire Department in North Carolina, plus a Technical Writer-Editor. It was led by Joe Stutler, of the USFS, who is qualified as a Type 1 Incident Commander and Area Commander, positions at the pinnacle of the incident management structure.
In a press conference when the report was released, Mr. Stutler began by saying the report was intended to not place blame on anyone, and would “avoid should have, could have, and would have, statements that frankly inhibit sensemaking and also inhibit continuing to learn from the event.”
Describing the actions taken or not taken on the fire, he said, “the review team found no evidence of negligence of anyone at the park. They did the very best they could when it came to their duty. They did the very best they could based on what was loaded in their hard drive”, he said as he pointed to his head. “Never in the history of this park or even in the surrounding area”, Mr. Stutler said, “had anyone seen the combination of severe drought, fire on the landscape, and an extreme wind event” occurring at the same time.
Combined with a wildland/urban interface, it was the “perfect storm”, he explained. The review team concluded that the fire management officials did not see the potential for the low-frequency, high-risk event.
“The review team concluded that a lack of wildland fire preparedness during a period of drought conditions favorable to wildfires overwhelmed National Park Service response to the CT2 fire. Though the review team concluded that the firefighting decisions made by the personnel involved were commensurate within their knowledge and experience in fighting wildland fires in the region, this report recommends enhanced preparedness and fire planning based on fire-conditions assessments, and adherence to the National Park Service wildland fire program and policies. These recommendations will likely enhance the capability of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park to respond to a wildfire event with similar or greater fire weather conditions in the future.”
The report made recommendations, including:
Revise the park’s fire management plan to reflect more aggressive strategies and tactics during extreme fire weather conditions.
Expand communications capacity to allow interoperability with responders outside the federal system.
The Fire Management Officer should be supervised by a single individual, not two.
Since no Red Flag Warnings were issued around the time of the fire, evaluate current Red Flag Warning and advisory criteria to reflect conditions experienced during the 2016 fire season.
The National Park Service leadership should embrace and institute change to create wildland fire management organizations that have the capacity and resilience to meet the realities of this “new normal” fire behavior.
Institute formal fire management officer and agency administrator mentoring and/or development programs.
(The article was edited on December 7, 2019 to show that Joe Stutler is currently working for the U.S. Forest Service.)
Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Bob. Typos or errors, report them HERE.
The Little Tujunga Hotshots are about 2,000 miles away from their southern California home on the Angeles National Forest. The crew is staged on the Cherokee National Forest in eastern Tennessee due to the high wildland fire danger in the area.
About 48 hours after the Chimney Tops 2 Fire spread from Great Smoky Mountains National Park into Gatlinburg, Tennessee November 28, 2016 burning 2,400 structures and 17,000 acres, country music artist Dolly Parton established the My People Fund.
In the weeks and months that followed, the fund provided $1,000 each month for six months to Sevier County families whose homes were uninhabitable or were completely destroyed in that fire and a few others that burned at the same. Any family that lost their primary residence (renters and homeowners) due to the wildfires in the county were eligible. Thanks to a tremendous outpouring of donations, the final distribution checks were $5,000 per family.
As if that were not enough, Ms. Parton continued with the generosity on March 16, 2019 when she met with the Fire Chiefs of the fire departments in Sevier County. In recognition of their roles in fighting the fires of 2016, the My People Fund donated the remaining dollars in the account — $20,000 to each volunteer fire department and $40,000 to their area training center.
While a family was hiking on a trail in Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee on December 27 part of a tree fell killing the mother, Laila Jiwani, a 42-year-old pediatrician from Plano, Texas and injuring her 6-year-old son.
Below is an excerpt from an article at Knox News:
Her husband, Taufiq Jiwani, said Jiwani died “immediately upon the severity of the impact.”
The couple was hiking in the park with their three sons. One of the sons, Jibran, was also injured by the tree, which broke his leg in two places and caused “superficial head injuries,” according to the post.
Jibran, 6, was airlifted to the UT Medical Center with non-life threatening injuries, according to Litterst. He underwent surgery and was scheduled to be discharged on Saturday, according to the Facebook post.
“Doctors said that Laila saved Jibran’s life by taking the brunt of the impact,” Taufiq Jiwani wrote on Facebook.
Our sincere condolences go out to the Jiwani family.
An After Action Review has been released for the Chimney Tops 2 Fire that spread from Great Smoky Mountains National Park into the city of Gatlinburg, Tennessee a little over a year ago killing 14 people, forcing 14,000 to evacuate, destroying or damaging 2,500 structures, and burning 17,000 acres. The AAR, completed by ABS Group, was commissioned by Gatlinburg and Sevier County.