Almost a year ago, deadly fires ripped through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Gatlinburg and the surrounding area, killing 14 people and leaving thousands of acres of scorched earth in their wake. As the community works to move on from the fires, there are still questions that need answering about the fires and officials’ response to them.
At a roundtable discussion, WATE 6 On Your Side’s Kristin Farley and Don Dare sat down at the Anna Porter Library in Gatlinburg with five officials who became the face of the wildfires in 2016 to talk about lessons they learned, as well as how the community continues to move forward.
The first communication between national park officials and the Gatlinburg Fire Department happened around 11 a.m. on Monday, Nov. 28, 2016.
“Our information pointed to the fact that if the fire were to make it to city limits, it would be in the area of Mynatt Park,” said Gatlinburg Fire Chief Greg Miller. “That’s why we assembled all the fire resources in and around that area. To protect… Mynatt Park, Savage Gardens and Davenport.”
However, there were fires already reported in the park and some popping up in Gatlinburg itself. Miller said every time there was a fire reported in a another area, officials went door-to-door to alert residents.
“You didn’t know where the fires was going to go until it wen there,” Miller said. “There was no coordination to where the fire popped up.”
Miller said not a single person responding to the fires that day would’ve predicted the end result of the firestorm.
“It was a very dynamic situation. We were taking things as they came and beginning to expand the evacuations as needed,” Miller said. “There was no discussion [of a full evacuation] prior to the point the evacuations were made.”
Around 10 p.m. after a full evacuation was ordered, the command center itself had to be evacuated as the fire approached the City of Gatlinburg Service Center.
“We received a notification from one of the on-scene commanders that the fire was progressing our way,” said Miller. “It didn’t seem like they were going to be able to stop it and they suggested we evacuate the emergency operations center.”
“[My firefighters] saw things that night that they had never seen before and a lot of them had very strong feelings that they would not make it home to see their spouse or their children. And they were pushing through areas that their training their entire careers had told them not to go. That this is a no-go situation but they continued to go,” Miller said. “But you know what, the night of the Nov. 28, not a single firefighter, not a single police officer, not a single paramedic or rescue personnel ever asked to be excused from duty because their own house was burning down or their parents’ house was burning down. The just continued to press on, to serve this community, its citizens and its visitors.”
An extensive after-action review completed by the Interior Department found that, while no wrongdoing was found by Great Smoky Mountains National Park crews, there were “weaknesses in the park’s response.”
The park is now embarking on a $2.5 million effort to replace park communications to allow officials to not only more effectively communicate within the park, but also speak to emergency responders outside of park boundaries. At the time of the fires, the park couldn’t communicate with the city and vice-versa.
“We did assign some of our ground folks to ride around together and make decisions, but that’s not the most effective way you do that under these kind of dark conditions,” said Cassius Cash, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park superintendent.
Some questioned why the park didn’t fight the Chimney Tops fire, where the wildfires began, more aggressively.
“I’m sure if you’ve been to Chimney Tops, it’s a very, very steep, rocky, area,” said Cash. “Based on that and not putting firefighters at great risk… we chose the indirect attack… because the fire was backing down that ridge top and that would’ve allowed us to more effectively get to be more aggressive toward it, but also do it in a safe and effective manner.”
“There’s been some days where I’ve been brought to tears. When the rangers, as they were getting people evacuated along the spur to get out because if you remember, there were a lot of trees coming down on the spur and people couldn’t get out to get to Pigeon Forge,” Cash said. “And so when you hear about rangers changing a person’s tire that was on flat in the middle of that firestorm, or when you hear about a ranger that was hit across the head and knocked unconscious, regained consciousness, and started back to doing his job, I, personally, can’t tip my hat enough to the heroism that was displayed by the men and women of the county, the city and the park.
Cash said there were still lessons learned from the way the fire was handled, but added that every fire is different.
“Each fire is like a fingerprint,” he said. “Based on the terrain, wind and origin of it, we’ll have to look at that — every time we’ll look at it differently.”
Cash says park rangers are also developing a fire prevention plan — including working with owners of land that borders the park — to reduce the amount of fuel and debris in the area. This would include performing controlled burns, as well as manually going in and removing downed trees.
Sevier County mayor Larry Waters took control of all the news conferences that were held in the Anna Porter Library in the days after the fires. One news conference, however, stood out from the others.
A reporter from North Carolina began asking a series of questions, essentially asking who was going to be held responsible for the lives lost, at which point Waters ended the conversation.
“The one thing I thought at the time is that that’s not appropriate at this time,” Waters said. “We were still searching, were still trying to locate missing people. That was our priority. Unfortunately, we discovered some lives had been lost… that’s what we were focused on.”
We were focused on continuing to put out spot fires that were in the city and the county. So, I just didn’t think it was the appropriate time to address it,” the mayor continued. “We had so much more going on that we had not had time to review the questions that she was asking or even discuss them, we were focused on search and rescue.”
In the Chimney Tops 2 Fire review, it was mentioned that fires like this one would be considered the “new norm.” Gatlinburg’s fire chief disagrees.
“I think it’s perception, said Chief Miller. “A lot of people hear the word ‘new norm’ and they may perceive that this is going to be routine. I do not think we’re going to see what we saw on November 28, 2016, on a routine. But before November 28, we could say that we’ve never experienced anything like it before. We do not have the luxury of saying that anymore. So, we have to make sure that we are prepared for something, because we can’t claim that we have never had it.”
Since the fires, Gatlinburg city leaders are taking a close look at how they give residents updates during emergency situations, like the wildfires. Since last year, there’s been a lot of talk about the city’s response to the fire, as well as criticism about social media updates and website updates, or the lack thereof on the day the fires broke out.
City manager Cindy Ogle says city officials have taken a close look at ways to improve their response when the need arises.
“We’ve improved the Facebook page of the police department and we’ve started a Facebook page for the city itself,” said Ogle. “Of course, in our unique situation, being a single-industry own of tourism, we rely heavily on the Chamber of Commerce and the Convention and Visitors Bureau to aid us in getting information out.”
The use of sirens wash also a big question raised after the fires. Four of the existing sirens, which were originally considered the city’s flood warning system, were replaced after they were damaged in the fire. An additional siren was also added. The city is in the process of working with the county to expand siren coverage into the county. An additional siren will also be placed at the Sugarlands Visitors Center in the park. Ogle said the project should be complete by Dec. 1.
A second phase will add an AM radio station to broadcast emergency messages, as well as nine additional sirens.
A silent test of the sirens is performed twice a day, at 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. These tests are monitored and tracked by a computer system. An audible test is performed monthly on the first Wednesday of the month at noon. However, it plays the Westminster chimes for nine seconds.
“That way, we don’t get people experiencing that ‘cry wolf’ syndrome to where they’ve heard it so many times they say, ‘is that a test or the real thing,'” said Miller.
Recent city commission meetings in Gatlinburg have been heated over the last year. Critics, including University of Tennessee professor Dr. Henri Grissino-Mayer, have been vocal about the plans to rebuild on the same footprint, saying it’s asking for a repeat of the disaster. Grissino-Mayer said the cabins in some communities are “fire dominoes.”
Ogle said there is no waiver as it relates to building codes.
“Anyone rebuilding in the city of Gatlinburg, and I say this in the county as well, has to meet the updated building codes,” the city manager said.
These building codes were adopted in 2012 and are tougher than they had been in the past.
Officials are working with the Sevier County Economic Development Council on a proposal that would build affordable housing in each community in Sevierville and Pigeon Forge and in Gatlinburg to replace homes for working-class people that were destroyed in the fire.
“I know [the Tennessee Housing Development Agency] has some announcements coming up about affordable housing projects in Sevier County… but we recognize it was an issue before the fires. The fires have exacerbated that issue, and we recognize that government doesn’t want to be in the housing business, but we are going to take some significant steps to help private industry build affordable housing in the cities,” said Sevier County Mayor Larry Waters.
There is also a lot of property for sale where cabins burned, many of which haven’t been rebuilt. The city estimates that of the thousand structures that were destroyed in the city, about 50 percent of them were overnight rental cabins or second homes.
Property cleanup must be completed by the end of December, per city and county deadlines. There is also a private property debris removal program offered under the FEMA federal disaster declaration. Families who don’t have the money to clean up their property can apply to qualify for the program to get help cleaning up their land.
Chief Miller acknowledged that, after an event like the wildfires, you have no option but to lower the bar on when you call for a full evacuation.
“That’s why we have gone through the steps of improving this emergency notification system and enhancing all of the different methods with which we can notify people,” Miller said. “It’s not just going to be sirens and it’s not going to be just AM radios, but with iPhones and text messages and phone calls and social media platforms.
The chief said they will be able to get the message out more quickly and not have to rely on door-to-door messaging.
“Never did anyone think you would be in a situation to where 99 percent of your communication systems would become fractured,” Miller said, “And you lose internet, and you lose cell phones and landlines and everything else. So we’re definitely going to be better prepared for that in the future.”
Street signs are also changing in some communities to help people navigate their way out of the mountains, should the need arise.The signs would be more navigational than evacuation-focused in nature.
“In the mountains it’s very difficult to develop an evacuation route. You don’t know what the disaster that you’re addressing is,” Waters said. “It might be a tornado, it might be a wildfire, it might be a flood, so you can’t have on route that goes, because it might go in to one of these events, so we’re working with these experts on how best we can address it.”
Many of the victims’ families feel they haven’t received much sympathy and support from city and county leaders over the past year. One said they just got their first phone call from a city official in early November, and it was about the upcoming memorial ceremony on November 28.
Gatlinburg’s city manager Cindy Ogle says it was never intentional not to reach out to the families of the victims.
“From the city of Gatlinburg perspective, we lean heavily on our tourism organization to be the public relations arm, to be the reaching out arm of the city, and in the Gatlinburg relief fund project, I guess is the best way to say that, I know that our CVB people reached out to the victims of the families,” said Ogle.
Each victim’s family also received $25,000 through the Gatlinburg Chamber of Commerce Foundation.
Because the city was shut down for some time, there was perception in surrounding cities and states that downtown Gatlinburg was lost, leading to a large reduction in tourism dollars. However, the economic recovery has already begun.
Ogle says the highest decreases in revenue was around 35 percent, but that number is now down to a five or six percent decrease.
“We have been blessed with two or three major hotels opening on Airport Road that are now contributing to the tax revenue of the city, and another one scheduled to open in the spring,” said the city manager.
Westgate Resorts, which was heavily impacted, has also made great headway in its rebuild, which has helped the area rebound.
In the national park, numbers were down in the first part of the year, but rebounded nicely in the later months.
“Last year was a record year with 11.3 million [visitors], and so the way the numbers are looking now is that we will at least meet that number, and there is a slight chance we may even exceed that number this year,” Cash said. “This is a generational park where you bring grandkids and families come out and so I think just like the community of Gatlinburg and Sevier County, our visitorship is just as resilient and so they’ve come back, and there’s a little bit of spike in curiosity to make sure that the park is still intact and the city’s still intact as well.”
Firewise is a federal program that helps people, communities and individual property owners become more wildfire-resistant
“We are actively pursuing recognition as a Firewise city,” Miller said. “Currently there are only 14 in the state of Tennessee that are Firewise communities.”
“A lot of people think to be a Firewise community, you have to cut all your trees down, and that’s not necessarily the truth,” said Miller. “But a lot of it is just general maintenance and keeping the leaves out of your gutters and being careful what you plant as far as shrubbery around your home and not using wood mulch all the way up to the structure.”
Proximity of trees to a home is also an important consideration.
There are also recommendations about certain building materials that are more wildfire-resistant than others, in case embers land on a roof, for instance.
Waters added that the county is also taking similar steps.
“When someone comes into our building in the inspection department and applies for a permit, they’re given a brochure that explains how to make your home better prepared for a wildfire,” he said.
A ceremony is scheduled to take place on November 28 at 5 p.m. at Rocky Top Sports World to remember the victims of the fire and recognize all those who fought the fires. A Gatlinburg city committee will unveil plans for a permanent memorial to the victims, as well.
Officials hope the memorial will be significant enough to express the deep sympathy they have for the victims and their families.
“Gatlinburg’s a wonderful place that so many people love, and my heart goes out to people that are still angry, still, you know, don’t feel like their answers are being met, but we’ve tried to answer every question that’s been given to us,” said Gatlinburg mayor Mike Werner. “The future of Gatlinburg is bright and I feel that by being positive, everyone is moving forward and we’re seeing healing much faster than we ever would have.”
“I’ve had opportunities to talk to first responders in a lot of different places and they’ve said they’ve never seen an area that reached out to people that had so much love and compassion as Gatlinburg, so everybody sitting here wants the very best for every citizen,” he continued.
“I really believe in my heart that everyone did absolutely everything that they could to save lives and to save property during the most unprecedented, horrific happening that this community’s ever seen, that the state has ever seen, and as to wildfires we would submit to you the south east has ever seen and maybe even east of the Mississippi,” said Ogle.