Dec. 19–Poor communication by Great Smoky Mountains National Park rangers with Gatlinburg authorities undermined the initial response to last year’s deadly wildfire and cost lives, a report released Tuesday found.
“Insufficient warning by (the park) contributed to a dramatically reduced time frame to conduct needed evacuations,” the outside review concluded.
Fourteen people died that night, and more than 2,500 homes and businesses suffered damage, with some burned to the foundations.
Gatlinburg agencies worked together heroically during the firestorm but failed to grasp the scale of the threat early on when faced with a blaze burning at speeds that topped 2,000 acres per hour, the review found. Miscommunication led to misunderstandings that blinded expectations and cost emergency crews precious time when every second counted.
By the time everyone involved saw the true danger, “it appears that this fire was unstoppable regardless of the number of first responders.”
The review by ABS Consulting, conducted for about $100,000, examined the response by Gatlinburg and Sevier County agencies to the Nov. 28, 2016, wildfire after the flames left the park, where the fire had begun five days earlier. The findings came after more than a year of questions from residents demanding to know why the fire wasn’t stopped before it reached the city and why they weren’t told to evacuate sooner.
The report found local police and firefighters “performed as trained” in “heroic efforts” to save lives but weren’t prepared to deal with such obstacles as an overloaded emergency communications system, repeated power failures and out-of-control flames on all fronts.
A lack of early notice from the park appeared to be the most critical failure, according to the report.
“All first responders, (Gatlinburg command center) personnel and field command staff were unaware of the rate at which the fire spread was occurring,” the report found. “The fire was unable to be fully assessed in its entirety . … More timely and accurate communications from the (park) personnel would have helped the city to prepare sooner for what was a catastrophic event.”
Gatlinburg firefighters got no advance warning of the fire until the morning of Nov. 28, when the fire captain on duty called the park just before 11 a.m. to ask about the smoke pouring into the city. The park’s fire management officer, Greg Salansky, told him everything was under control — even as rising winds carried embers for miles toward the city below.
Moments after Salansky hung up, a maintenance crew discovered flames near the Twin Creeks Picnic Pavilion — within a mile and a half of the Gatlinburg city limits. Within seven hours, much of the city was ablaze.
The fire began Nov. 23, 2016, when Salansky spotted smoke coming from the Chimney Tops peaks on the day before Thanksgiving at the tail end of one of the driest fire seasons. He initially chose to try to contain the fire rather than fight it, despite forecasts by the National Weather Service that warned of high winds and “critically dry” conditions.
City and county officials learned at 12:30 p.m. about the fire at Twin Creeks. Early attempts to build firebreaks focused on a single portion of the city — Mynatt Park and surrounding neighborhoods in the southeast corner at the national park’s edge — based on recommendations from Salansky and other national park officials.
Fire Chief Greg Miller promptly sent out calls for aid from other fire departments, eventually drawing 3,535 firefighters from around the country. But most of that aid didn’t arrive for hours, and officials at all levels failed to consider a potential threat to Chalet Village and other communities across town to the southwest.
A computerized fire simulation predicted the fire wouldn’t reach Gatlinburg for another 19 hours. But that model didn’t account for high winds or the speeds that could be reached by a fire that officials didn’t know had already burst through the treetops to race toward them. As winds rose, park rangers even set backfires to protect buildings inside the national park, according to the report.
By 6 p.m., winds topped 60 mph — maybe cracked triple digits by some accounts — and sent the flames roaring through town. The fire grew and forked to fold around the city on both sides, with the western half of town undefended. Most of those who died were on that side of town, just outside the city limits.
Police and firefighters raced from door to door to evacuate homes, but the fire outran them. Flames in some places forced fire crews into retreat, and some hydrants ran dry due to lack of water pressure.
“They took heroic actions to evacuate threatened areas, often at personal risk to their own lives,” the report noted.
The city had no mass warning system and relied on officers and firefighters to make notifications in person. That system, crippled by a late start, quickly broke down as trees blocked roads and flames surged through neighborhoods. Even so, most of the 14,000 people in the fire’s path escaped to safety.
Miller ordered the entire city evacuated around 8:30 p.m., and authorities activated a downtown siren system originally installed in case of flooding. People outside the downtown never heard the sirens. The report calls for the city to develop “early warning systems” and consider ways to alert tourists and others new to the area in an emergency.
The wind finally died down around 2 a.m. as rain doused the flames.
A similar review by the National Park Service, released earlier this year, examined park rangers’ response to the fire in the initial days. That review found inaction, understaffing and a failure to appreciate the danger led to a response that violated various park service policies and amounted to too little, too late. The report also warned a fire like Gatlinburg’s “will be repeated” without changes.
Park officials have received the ABS report but haven’t finished reviewing it, spokeswoman Dana Soehn said.
“As we understand it, this review focused on the city’s and county’s response to the fire outside the park,” park Superintendent Cassius Cash said in a statement. “We look forward to reading it and to addressing the challenges as we move forward together.”
Authorities ultimately charged two teenage boys from Anderson County with starting the fire by playing with matches. State prosecutors dropped the case, and federal prosecutors have given no public sign of pursuing charges.
City and county officials refused to release records on the fire for months, citing the Juvenile Court case against the boys, but finally complied after the case was dropped.
Authorities in neighboring Pigeon Forge have contracted for a similar review of their response to the fire, which was headed toward Dollywood when the rain arrived. That review could be finished early next year.
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