Around 8 p.m. the night of November 28, 2016, the Gatlinburg fire department central dispatcher’s office received a call from fire crews. “I just want to make sure you understand,” someone said. “We have a wall of fire coming down Reagan Drive and Historic Nature Trail. Multiple buildings.”
That warning was one of thousands of calls released to the media in a public records request. Those calls and thousands of other documents, videos and photos would later piece together how a deadly disaster came to be.
“No one knew November 28 that this community was susceptible to such a widespread firestorm,” said Gatlinburg fire chief Greg Miller. Chief Miller was one of the key figures during the wildfires. As the incident commander, it was his call to evacuate the city.
“If you look at November 28, I always like the saying, ‘you don’t know what you don’t know,’” said Miller.
“And I think that’s what’s going to be important is— what do we do now?”
The firestorm that left 14 people dead and roughly 2,500 structures damaged or destroyed was described as the inferno of a century. Not only did it forever change the landscape of one of the popular peaks in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the Chimney Tops 2 fire also left behind emotional scars.
Since the fires, Scott Tegler has traveled back and forth from his home in Canada to his parents home in Georgia and the Tegler family property in Chalet Village in Gatlinburg.
“The loss of Mom and Dad is more difficult now,” said Scott Tegler. “I’ve heard other people talk about loss, and you do, you just break down for a couple of seconds and you try to grab yourself and carry on. It’s so quick and so tragic, not to say than it’s any easier.”
John and Marilyn Tegler were found just around the corner from their home along Skyline Drive off Wiley Oakley Drive. Marilyn Tegler was found clutching her dog Tucker. According to his autopsy report, John Tegler had injuries the medical examiner believed may have been from being hit by a vehicle.
As a firefighter in Canada, Scott Tegler understands the elements of a wildland fire more than most, which is why he believes the 2016 disaster could have been prevented.
“Personally, in my opinion, they should not be dead right now,” said Tegler. “They should have been evacuated hours before and this may have been the same result, probably would have been, but at least we wouldn’t have 14 people dead.”
Tegler is one of hundreds of people who have joined a class-action lawsuit against the National Park Service, a lawsuit spearheaded by Sevier County attorney Sid Gilreath.
“First of all, why didn’t the national park extinguish it in the first place? That needs to be answered. In my opinion, it needs to be answered,” said Tegler.
“And the next is that now we’re dealing with a municipality that’s surrounded by a forest. You knew it was dry. So there’s a hazard right away. You knew the wind conditions. You knew what to expect. But yet, you didn’t take any reasonable precaution to ensure the safety, in my opinion,” said Tegler.
A year later, much has changed in Sevier County. Of the thousands of properties that burned, roughly 30 percent have applied for rebuilding permits. The majority of those damaged houses and cabins were considered secondary homes or rentals. Some owners decided to sell, others rebuild.
Those who are rebuilding like Pete and Joy Jucker are determined to rebuild “Firewise.”
“Once I lost the house and started looking for info, I ran into the Firewise program and Joy and I attended the Firewise program in Pigeon Forge,” said Pete Jucker.
The Firewise program has been adopted by communities throughout the country hoping to encourage homeowners to build in a way that would better protect properties from natural disasters like wildfires.
“It’s not about cutting all the trees or not living in the woods,” said Pete Jucker. “it’s actually a lot simpler than that. You can do a lot of the things that you have, you just have to do ‘em a little bit differently from what we did in the past.”
The Gatlinburg fire department has been preaching “Firewise” tactics for years. Fire chief Greg Miller advises things like “general maintenance of leaves in the gutter, not having combustible stacked up around your house.”
Chief Miller said this is “one of the most important things they can do, and this is true throughout the entire country, it doesn’t apply solely to the city of Gatlinburg or to Sevier County. It’s everywhere.”
The smoke around Sevier County hadn’t even cleared before questions surrounding the evacuations erupted. Social media fueled those flames.
“It was hard on the fire department when we were under that gag order, because we could release that info. I felt a lot of people had the opinion that we were trying to hide something,” said Miller. “And when all the info was released, all the records and all the videos, it showed what we wanted people to see.”
“These firemen did not quit on you,” said Miller. “They didn’t run in the opposite direction. They were going in areas that their training told them was a no-go situation.”
“An 8-hour window from 6 p.m. to 2 a.m. over 2,500 structures caught fire. That’s more fires in one 8-hour window that some firefighters will see in two or three careers,” said Miller. “If you break that down, that’s a structure every 19 seconds.”
“We just wanted people to know that we did the very best that we could in the worst conditions imaginable.”
“We were advised that if the fire reached the city, it was going to reach Mynatt Park. We started evacuating that area early,” said Miller.
“As the fire kept creeping, and that’s what exactly what it was doing that afternoon, we were to expand that area to Mynatt Park to include Savage Gardens area and over into the Turkey’s Nest areas.”
A mandatory evacuation was issued for Mynatt Park around 6 p.m. By then, videos were spreading through social media showing the flames outside the Park Vista Hotel in Gatlinburg. But as the sun set on November 28, fires were also erupting on the Spur.
Miller calls the situation unpredictable, but also described what firefighters dealt with.
“When you’ve got a crew of firefighters that are ready for battle, and the enemy is coming from in front of you, and that’s the area that you’re prepared for attack, but then you get flagged because the fire comes in off Ski Mountain and comes through the area of the bypass and into Chalet Village.”
“How many communities in the southeast area can ever say they’ve had to evacuate an entire town?” said Miller.
“This is much bigger, much faster than we were advised that it could be, and it caught everybody off guard,” said Miller. “Nobody could have anticipated the magnitude of this and once it started, I just turned around and said we’ve got to evacuate the entire town, and I made that call.”
Communication failures that night would delay that call. Sevier County’s cell phone towers were knocked out by winds and flames. A National Weather Service bulletin was posted at 9:02 p.m. on November 28.
Questions were also raised whether or not the embers from the national park could start a fire miles away in Chalet Village, Wears Valley, Cobbly Nob or along the Spur. Was it the wind? Or was it a combination of several elements?
Fire Chief Greg Miller isn’t quite so sure himself. “What happens first? Did the power lines fall because of winds or did they fall because the fire progressed through had burned the power pole? I don’t know,” said Miller. “There was a potential for multiple ignition sources based on the winds, fire, blowing embers and firebrands, so I don’t know if we’ll ever know the answer to that question.”