NIST publishes study on Gatlinburg wildfires for improved evacuation planning

Local News

GATLINBURG, Tenn. (WATE) — Earlier this month, the National Institute of Standards and Technology published a study on the 2016 Gatlinburg Chimney Tops 2 fire that focused a lens on improved evacuation responses — taking data surveyed from Sevier County residents.

According to the study in which 400 Sevier County residents responded, evacuations played a key component in response to the wildfires, which killed 14 people and injured 200 and caused massive property damage.

The study found 80% of evacuations happened the day after the fire had breached the Gatlinburg city limits, despite the fire burning days earlier in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Researchers learned of an unexpected trend from among those surveyed – where they say the smoke from the fire actually seemed to lower peoples’ sense of danger: “Since this wildfire was actually burning for a week in the surrounding area, we proposed that some kind of desensitization might have happened.”

In response to a press release about the study sent out earlier this month, “Insights Into Behavior During Chimney Tops 2 Fire Could Improve Evacuation Planning,” Tennessee lawmaker Phil Roe released the following statement on Sept. 11:

“The Gatlinburg wildfires were a senseless tragedy, and my heart still breaks seeing images of the fire’s destruction. I thank the residents of Gatlinburg who participated in this study by the National Institute of Standards and Technology so that our community and others can learn from these painful experiences and improve wildfire evacuation planning. Particularly now as wildfires are raging across our nation, the lessons we can learn from studying previous tragedies can help save lives now. I think we all need to reflect upon what was learned from East Tennesseans who lost loved ones, friends, homes, and businesses.

“The study also helped us understand more about how residents make the decision to evacuate, including a surprising finding that the long-term presence of smoke actually lowered residents’ sense of danger. Fast-moving wildfires present a unique threat, so it’s critical we learn from this tragedy to better protect people in the future.”

Rep. Phil Roe, M.D. (R-Tenn.)

Note: The National Institute of Standards and Technology’s press release can be found here. The research paper, “Modeling Evacuation Decision-making in the 2016 Chimney Tops 2 Fire in Gatlinburg, TN”, Kuligowski et al., is DOI: 10.1071/WF20038

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