Weather Helps Firefighters Shrink Smokies Fires

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Fire containment and conditions on the ground in Sevier County continued to improve overnight into Tuesday. The 17,000- acre Chimney Tops fire remains 58 percent contained, the same as yesterday, but the Cobbly Nob fire increased to being 53 percent contained at about 800 acres, says Tim Phelps, communications director for the Tennessee Division of Forestry.

“The rain the last two days has been nice and slow, giving time for moisture to seep into those bigger fuels and cool them off, if not put them out,” he says. “We’re still working on the containment line,” but he expects it won’t be long before firefighters can work on widening it. Phelps says firefighters are walking the ground with hand tools to turn over big stumps and logs to expose fire still burning.

“It’s not uncommon to have something out there burning for a while,” he says, but just how long depends on the weather. Fire depends on fuel, oxygen and heat, and fortunately fine fuels have either already burned or are very wet now, while temperatures are expected to remain below freezing by the end of the week.

“Mother Nature has really helped us out,” Phelps says.

Mother Nature was more like the enemy last week, when high winds spread embers from what had been a small fire in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, sparking dozens of fires at once in the area around Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge. At least 14 people died and thousands of homes and businesses were destroyed by the subsequent blaze, leaving the town of Gatlinburg still closed to visitors.

The original fire and the largest one it created still burn. But because of the firefighting progress, some of the equipment and firefighters that came from other states to help – even as far away as Alaska – are being demobilized. There were 154 firefighters on Cobbly Nob and 565 on Chimney Tops last night, Phelps says, down for more than 700 at Chimney Tops a couple of days ago. He says the rain is allowing firefighting units to service their heavily-used equipment.

Given the ferocity of the fires early last week, it is perhaps somewhat surprising that firefighters have not suffered more injuries, but Phelps emphasized that firefighter safety is a top priority for the command team. A firefighter suffered from smoke inhalation early on, but since then injuries have been minor – mostly twisted ankles, Phelps says.

No new fires have been reported in the state this week, Phelps says, a big change from October and November when there were sometimes ten new fires a day. “We’re back to some sense of normalcy,” he says. “What was unusual was the volume of fires and their persistence due to the drought.”

But that wasn’t true last week. At the moment when the general public has needed information about wildfire status the most, the Tennessee Division of Forestry had reduced its daily fire reports from twice to once a day and hasn’t posted one since Dec. 2 (covering the previous day). Several buttons on the division’s burnsafetn.org web site send visitors seeking a daily fire report either to the state’s general web site or to a fire report from May 2015.

Throughout the busy burn season, the Division of Forestry encouraged the public to visit its burnsafetn.org website to stay on top of fire activity in their area, and many more people got in the habit of using the resource. The state had been posting both daily fire reports listing the number of fires, their causes and size; and active fire updates with more detail about the largest fires. Those updates stopped at about the same time that an extraordinary firestorm swept through Gatlinburg and the surrounding areas on Nov. 28, and the daily fire reports, which were never updated on the weekends, dwindled further.

At the same time, the Division of Forestry continued to direct people to its Burn Safe site for fire information, since its employees who were knowledgeable about the fire were mostly in Gatlinburg working to fight the fire or support the fire fighters.

Phelps says the agency stopped providing active fire reports because most of the wildfires in the state had been put out. He says the daily fire reports became less frequent because primary responsibility for fire response in Sevier County, where the remaining fires were burning, had been handed over from the state to the federal Southern Area Incident Management Team. The team is coordinating firefighting efforts that combine state responders with support equipment and personnel from other states.

“There were a lot of moving parts, as you can imagine, with this fire,” Phelps says. “That’s why the incident management team was brought in.”

Phelps says the best place for the public to check for the latest fire update information is now the Chimney Tops 2 Fire Facebook page and the federal fire incident website. He says he thinks that link may have been distributed in a past active fire update by the state, but he’s not sure. The inciweb.nwcg.gov site provides an up-to-date map of both the Chimney Tops and Cobbly Nob fires, an estimate of the extent of their containment, a description of what fuels remain and details about weather and fire behavior predictions over a period ranging from 12 hours to 72 hours.

Phelps says there will be an after-action review of how the fire was handled within the Division of Forestry, looking at ways to improve in the future. He says the state already knows its web site needs updating to work better with mobile devices, and it is due to be updated in the first three months of 2017. “We hope to build in more interactive activity,” he says.

S. Heather Duncan has won numerous awards for her feature writing and coverage of the environment, government, education, business and local history during her 15-year reporting career. Originally from Western North Carolina, Heather has worked for Radio Free Europe, the Institute for War and Peace Reporting in London, and several daily newspapers. Heather spent almost a dozen years at The Telegraph in Macon, Ga., where she spent most of her time covering the environment or writing project-investigations that provoked changes such as new laws related to day care and the protection of environmentally-sensitive lands. You can reach Heather at heather@knoxmercury.com

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