In a lawsuit filed Wednesday, a Gatlinburg man who lost his wife and two daughters in the 2016 Sevier County wildfires is suing the National Park Service for $13.5 million, saying the park service was negligent in its efforts to contain the fire. The fire claimed 14 lives, injured 191 and damaged or destroyed 2,500 homes, buildings and other structures.
Michael Reed is seeking damages for the wrongful deaths of his wife, Constance, and daughters, Lily, 9, and Chloe, 12. The lawsuit alleges that the federal government is responsible for the wrongful death of Reed’s wife and daughters.
“Different negligent acts that came together that led to a disaster is what happened,” said Sid Gilreath, his attorney.
Reed is joined in the lawsuit by James England, a Sevier County property owner who lost his home and vehicle. England is suing the park service for $1.3 million.
The lawsuit alleges six claims for relief:
- Negligence – Failure to monitor
- Negligence – Failure to comply with command structure requirements
- Negligence – Failure to adhere to mandatory fire management policies and requirements
- Negligence – Failure to warn
- Negligence – Wrongful death
- Loss of society and consortium
The lawsuit also lists 11 violations of mandated requirements:
- Failure to monitor The Chimney Tops 2 Fire in the GSMNP;
- Failure to adhere to mandatory command-structure requirements;
- Failure to adhere to mandatory fire management policies and requirements;
- Neglecting to perform requisite complexity analyses;
- Negligently implementing a 410-acre containment box;
- Negligently failing to adopt contingency plans in case the Chimney Tops 2 Fire escaped the containment box or the GSMNP;
- Negligently disregarding fire-behavior modeling;
- Negligently failing to utilize available air operations to suppress The Chimney Tops 2 Fire;
- Negligently failing to implement a universal communications system to permit inter-agency communications, thus preventing many responders from effectively communicating with one another;
- Negligently failing to utilize the Wildland Fire Decision Support System (“WFDSS”), which would have prompted (1) periodic assessments of the ongoing effectiveness and (2) reevaluation of suppression-strategies;
- Negligently failing to provide timely and accurate notice and warning to Park neighbors, local government officials, local fire departments, local residents and visitors about the status of and imminent danger presented by The Chimney Top 2 Fire.
The lawsuit says that, according to the team of experts hired by Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge, “the most critical failure of all during the Chimney Tops 2 Fire was the complete lack of early notice from the Park to local officials, residents and visitors in Sevier County, including Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge. Because of this failure, firefighters had no advance warning of the fire until late-Monday morning, November 28, 2016, when a GFD captain called the park to ask about the thick smoke pouring into the city.”
The 148-page lawsuit says that June 2016 fuel advisories predicted significant fire danger in the park and by November, the risk of wildfire was significant in East Tennessee, due to drought. Then, on November 22, 2016, the National Weather Service declared the park to be in an “extreme” and “exceptional” drought condition.
On November 23, a fire was found near the top of the Chimney Tops Trail and, the lawsuit says, officials decided to contain, not extinguish the fire. A plan was developed to contain the fire inside a 410-acre containment box.
“In the end, events of the succeeding five days demonstrated the plan devised by [Fire Management Officer Greg] Salansky was a debacle of historic proportions, made worse by innumerable and repeated failures by Salansky and Park officials to adhere to settled fire-management policies,” says the lawsuit.
The lawsuit goes on to say that from November 23 through November 27, the fire was abandoned in the overnight hours and allowed to grow from two acres to hundreds of acres by November 27.
“For those same five consecutive nights, Salansky and Park officials failed to notify or warn Gatlinburg officials, Park neighbors, local residents and visitors about the imminent danger posed by The Chimney Tops 2 Fire,” the lawsuit said.
By November 28, the fire had spread outside the containment box and began to threaten park headquarters and other structures. By 6 p.m., the fire had breached the park boundaries and near-hurricane-force winds carried it into Gatlinburg and surrounding neighborhoods.
“According to the team of experts hired by Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge, the most critical failure of all during The Chimney Tops 2 Fire was the complete lack of early notice from the Park to local officials, residents and visitors in Sevier County, including Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge,” the lawsuit said.
The lawsuit continues to say that “Salansky errantly advised the [Gatlinburg Fire Department] captain that everything was “under control” and no help was needed. Meanwhile, The Chimney Tops 2 Fire was barreling toward Gatlinburg at speeds that eventually exceeded 2,000 acres per hour, more than half an acre per second.”
The lawsuit alleges the park service failed to monitor the Chimney Tops 2 fire in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, failed to stick to mandatory fire management policies and was negligent in implementing a containment box around the fire and in utilizing available air support to fight the fire.
The lawsuit says the United States, as owner of the park, was obligated to prevent a dangerous condition on park property from escaping the park and injuring people and damaging property outside the park. The suit says that obligation was breached when the United States failed to comply with mandatory wildlife management policies to monitor wildfire on their land.
The lawsuit cites a number of pages from the Fire Monitoring handbook, along with other written or settled fire management policies, procedures, rules, regulations and guidelines.
The lawsuit goes on to say that fire managers neglected to use aircraft to fight until November 27, five days after the fire was discovered. It says the lack of a universal communications system also prevented first responders from communicating with one another, hampering firefighting efforts.
Park officials also failed to warn park neighbors, visitors and local residents about the fire.
“The Park’s FMP mandates that fire managers must inform the park’s neighbors and local residents of ‘all planned and unplanned fire management activities,'” says the lawsuit.