Gatlinburg’s Inferno: Why It Started, How It Spread, and What Needs to Happen Next

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University of Tennessee office of geography professor Henri Grissino-MayerThomas Fraser

University of Tennessee office of geography professor Henri Grissino-Mayer

Read more about the Gatlinburg fire here.

tree segment helps explain why an initially slow-burning wildfire turned ridges and hillsides in and around Gatlinburg into a deadly hellscape last week.

The 180-year-old tree ring from Great Smoky Mountains National Park, displayed in the University of Tennessee office of geography professor Henri Grissino-Mayer, shows the seasons the pine was affected by fire. The last indication of a forest fire was 1934. That blaze, sparked the same year the national park was established, charred at least 10,000 acres.

That was one of the last times a natural fire of that magnitude burned in the Smoky Mountains. Thus, a tinderbox accumulated over 80 years, complete with highly flammable and unusually large rhododendron and mountain laurel, and dead trees such as hemlocks and other casualties of pests and blight. Then came this year’s drought, with rainfall deficits approaching a foot in some parts of the park. And, then, on Nov. 28, came the hurricane-speed winds that allowed a human-caused fire to hopscotch from the Chimneys to Bullhead to Twin Creeks, where it roared out of the park.

No prescribed burns have been conducted in that area, says park spokeswoman Molly Schroer. But the park has done both manual and fire-based fuel reduction in areas where the park adjoins populated areas, such as on Ski Mountain in 2001 and along the Spur between 2001 and 2003, Schroer says. Ski Mountain was one of the hardest-hit areas and the site of multiple fatalities in the Nov. 28 fire. Wears Valley, where other structures burned last week, was also the site of relatively recent controlled burns and fuel reduction. “We prioritize it on the boundary and do it as funding is available,” she says.

Those measures are inadequate, Grissino-Mayer says.

“It was literally a perfect storm for catastrophe,” he says a week after the nearly 18,000-acre wildfire killed at least 14 people in the chalets, cabins, and condominiums that ring the ridges around the main thoroughfare through Gatlinburg. Some 14,000 people had to flee the area; 140 were injured. Multitudes of pets perished as 1,700 homes and businesses were destroyed or damaged.

The biogeographer, a specialist on the behavior and history of forest fires and their effects on communities, has been warning of such of a disaster for 10 years, presenting his 2008 PowerPoint, “Will our Great Smoky Mountains One Day Go Up in Smoke?” to civic groups. He has also warned of the dangers in published, peer-reviewed science journals. In 1994, as a University of Arizona graduate student, he warned of a major fire threat to Summerhaven, Ariz., which was devastated by a wildfire nine years later.

One of the largest controlled burns in the 520,000-acre park’s history was only 2,300 acres.

For the most part, that’s immediately irrelevant to the homeless, the jobless, and the officials facing blistering criticism they failed to provide adequate advance warning of the firestorm.

But Grissino-Mayer warns that if some land-use compromises aren’t reached during the rebuilding process, and municipalities don’t consider ordinances establishing buffers between developments and the park, the disaster could repeat itself in even more spectacular fashion—especially if the National Park Service holds off on controlled burns.

“Their priority is on recovery right now,” he says. “We all know right now the process needs to be on healing.”

Earlier this week, the fires were nearly halfway contained; visible flames were out but some of the hundreds of firefighters dispatched to the park continued extending fire lines around smoldering hotspots. Fortuitous rains helped quell the blazes, but their economic and emotional impact is immeasurable. Hundreds of people, many working hand-to-mouth jobs in the tourist industry, lost short-term incomes when they and the multitudes of tourists were evacuated from the fire area.

Gatlinburg officials were hoping to reopen the relatively silent downtown parkway by the middle of this week, 10 days after the fire brought death and displacement to the northern side of the Great Smokies. The area, including the city of Gatlinburg, will reopen to the public beginning at 7 a.m. Friday.

“It’s tragic on so many levels I can’t even summarize,” the professor says, red-eyed and speaking freely following a multitude of press interviews over the past week. A television crew waited outside his office on Monday afternoon. Another reporter called during the interview.

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Canadian couple, a Memphis couple, and a woman and her two children were among those killed when flames overwhelmed their vacation homes. Most of the reported fatalities occurred in the Ski Mountain and Chalet Village areas, says Gatlinburg Police Chief Randall Brackins. At least 134 people suffered injuries to some degree and 1,684 structures were damaged or destroyed, according to national park officials.

Property and business owners and renters began to return to their properties beginning Dec. 2 with the exception of the areas most heavily damaged—along Beech Branch Road, Wiley Oakley Drive, and Walker Trail.

It was the largest fire—13,000 acres within the park as of early this week—in Great Smoky Mountains National Park history, but no cultural resources were damaged and no widespread evacuation of backcountry hikers was necessary, according to temporary Smokies spokesperson Warren Bielenberg. He was one of at least 10 public information officers brought in from outside the park to handle the press crush.

Some park road closures continued early this week, including portions of Little River Road and U.S. 441 through the national park, the scene of innumerable blowdowns and nearby burns. The Gatlinburg Spur was reopened to the city visitor center. A wooden sign denoting entry into the park—the site of countless tourist and local photographs alike—was mostly burned. Someone draped an American flag over its worst wounds.

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gatlinburg5Leslie Wylie Bateman

Rocky Top Athletic World emergency shelter

Red Cross shelter was set up at Rocky Top Sports World off U.S. 321 immediately after the Nov. 28 fire.

Three days later, John Steich was still waiting patiently for information on when he could return to his home of 10 years on Cheshire Court.

He had gone to bed after work that evening, aware of the Chimneys fire, but not concerned.

“I didn’t think there was going to be anything in the city of Gatlinburg,” he says. His wife awoke him about 10:45 p.m. after hearing “popping” sounds and noting the power was off.

“I thought she was pulling my leg,” he says as smoke columns still peel off the hulk of the Smokies visible from the shelter and briefing and staging areas, part of the Galinburg-Pittman High School complex.

Then he looked out a window and saw a house uphill in an adjacent development completely in flames.

“I thought the whole place was burning down, I could barely see from the smoke coming down the hill,” Steich says. He and his wife and dogs plowed down the ridge through the fire to the Gatlinburg Police Station. “I didn’t know which way to go; there were so many fires, we were surrounded, so it seemed to me.

“When you’re driving through a fire you never know what’s going to be on the other end. You just pray, and by the grace of God we made it out of there.”

The police directed him to the shelter. “They were so covered up, these poor guys,” he says, describing the efforts of police and firefighters. “There’s no way anybody could’ve done anything. I think everyone has done a hell of a job.”

Sevier County Mayor Larry Waters choked back tears at one point on Thursday in one of several briefings held for press that poured in from across the country to report on the disaster. It happened when someone displayed a collection of well-wishes written to city and county officials and first responders from students at Pittman Center Elementary School.

He apologized to the press, and received forgiving murmurs in response.

“It’s an emotional thing—kids sending an expression of their love to all of us, the emergency responders and all of the people, and it’s just something that touched my heart for them to do that.”

The following day he would abruptly end a press conference attended by state and national political leaders, including Sens. Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker, and Gov. Bill Haslam, following pointed questions about the county’s response to the disaster and whether it had alerted citizens and took adequate precautions as fires burned in the nearby national park.

Earlier that Friday morning, Vincent Tolley, assistant county medical examiner, identified the first confirmed victims of the disaster: Jon and Janet Summers and John and Marilyn Tegler. The first announcements of what would be a rapidly mounting death, injury, and damage tolls were followed by comments from Haslam, Corker, and Alexander, a native of neighboring Blount County.

Haslam noted all three “happen to be children of East Tennessee, and we all grew up playing in these mountains, and camping in these mountains, and starving on our cooking and so occasionally coming down for pancakes in Gatlinburg.” The levity was soon lost.

Waters—the longest-serving mayor in Tennessee, who became the face of the local crisis response—and other officials faced pointed questions from an Asheville broadcast reporter about the lack of an evacuation notice as the fire bowled its way down the drainage to Twin Creeks.

Smokies superintendent Cassius Cash tried to explain the complexity of containing the fire to the rugged Chimneys area.

“There was no dropping the ball,” he says. Four bucket helicopters were brought in on Nov. 27 before they were grounded because of high winds. “You can’t put a crew up on the Chimneys and put a fire line around it.”

The park was in constant contact with Sevier County and Gatlinburg officials, he says. “We work collectively and that’s exactly what we did on Monday.” He was interrupted by the reporter, at which point Waters snapped: “What we’re getting into is folks who don’t know the area and Monday-morning quarterbacking.” He ended the briefing.

County officials later would attribute, in part, the lack of an emergency evacuation order to confusion among agencies and destroyed infrastructure.

“Officials worked diligently to coordinate the warning to the public before and during the catastrophic wildfire event that impacted Gatlinburg, other communities in Sevier County, and the park,” according to a joint press release from Tennessee Emergency Management Agency, Gatlinburg and Sevier County, and the National Park Service.

“Throughout the day, on Monday, November 28, officials sent media releases, utilized social media, and held media briefings to alert the public about the status of the fire to help them remain aware of the urgency of the continuously evolving situation,” according to the agencies. “Local emergency managers requested TEMA send an evacuation order to text devices at 8:30 p.m.

“However, communications between the agencies was interrupted due to disabled phone, Internet, and electrical services. Due to this interruption, the emergency notification was not delivered as planned … At the same time, the National Weather Service was unable to reach the local command post. Through collaboration with the Sevier County Dispatch, they were able to deliver the mandatory evacuation alert through an (emergency-alert system) message to radio and television only. Once communications were reestablished, TEMA was able to send a mobile message later in the evening via the (Integrated Public Alert and Warning System) asking Sevier County residents to stay off mobile devices except for emergency use.”

Those who sought to track the fires in a more long-term way before and after the firestorm likely also met roadblocks. 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 (before Nov. 28) and didn’t post one between Dec. 2 and at least Dec. 6. Several buttons on the division’s burnsafetn.org website send visitors seeking a daily fire report either to the state’s general website or to a fire report from May 2015. Last week the state also discontinued its “active fire updates,” with more detail about the largest fires, because most of the wildfires in the state had been put out, says Tim Phelps, communication director for the Division of Forestry.

He says the daily fire reports became less frequent because primary responsibility for fire response in Sevier County had been handed from the state to the federal Southern Area Incident Management Team. 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 inciweb.nwcg.gov site. He says he thinks that link may have been distributed in a past active fire update by the state, but he’s not sure. Phelps says there will be an after-action review of how the fire was handled within the Division of Forestry, and it already plans to overhaul its website in the next few months.

The Chimney Tops wildfire was reported to have descended into the Twin Creeks section of the park at 11:30 a.m., the morning of Nov. 28. The Chimneys fire, which originated in the higher stretches of the Chimney Tops Trail, was first reported on Nov. 23, five days earlier—the day before Thanksgiving.

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cover_1208_gatlinburgsinferno3Thomas Fraser

flock of turkeys on Friday browsed the blackened earth at Twin Creeks, which rises south of Gatlinburg. Not far away, a pair of women sifted through the ruins of a home in the Mynatt Park section of the city, just outside the boundary of the national park. Destruction and charred forest stretched in both directions above deserted yet largely undamaged downtown Gatlinburg. A drive through the deserted town reveals Christmas lights and bright,  vacant storefronts illuminating empty sidewalks in a surreal twilight scene drenched in the stench of smoke.

There was little that could be done to contain the spread of the fire, Schroer says.

“This is a fire we’ve never seen before,” she says Friday. Fire-fighting efforts were hampered by the effects of severe drought, low humidity levels, and southerly gales that were recorded at 83 mph before the power went out Monday at the Cove Mountain meteorological station.

The dangerous terrain of the Chimneys area prevented more aggressive initial suppression efforts, she says. On the morning of Nov. 28, that fire then spit embers into the picnic area down below. That blaze in turn sent embers a half-mile away and sparked a hot and fast fire on Bull Head near Mount LeConte. A U.S. Fisheries and Wildlife Service officer says that turned into a treetop-to-treetop crown fire, virtually unheard of in Eastern deciduous forests.

As earlier than expected winds—which also grounded aerial firefighting—blasted the area into Monday, fires broke out 1.5 miles away in Twin Creeks. Despite aggressive efforts from both federal and city firefighters that saved the Twin Creeks Science and Education Center, pavilion and bathrooms, and the Ogle cabin, that’s the fire that spread into the Mynatt Park area and ultimately brought ruin to the ridges above Gatlinburg, Schroer says. The winds also downed power lines that led to other spot fires in the city and county.

Nearly 500 firefighters from state and federal agencies labored over the last week to keep the fire area contained and monitor hot spots.

Dan Mitchell, the president of the Homebuilders Association of Greater Knoxville, says the rebuilding process could be complicated by both new code requirements that insurance payouts won’t completely cover, and the lack of skilled labor. He says a coalition of builders and developers will examine ways to further protect large resorts and developments from the ravages of wildfire, and “what could be done to help with exit strategy.”

But echoing a sentiment shared by many, he says little could have been done to prevent the catastrophic spread of the fires, fueled by ideal conditions for explosive growth. “It just happened so fast,” he says.

The economic impact of the fires, which destroyed at least 875 homes, is still being calculated, a Sevier County spokesperson says. But it will be immense, evidenced by an empty downtown Gatlinburg at the start of the holiday season and the fact that so many structures were either damaged or destroyed in the city and county.

Later Friday, up Newfound Gap Road, still closed to the public, a media gaggle led by Schroer looked out over the expansive drainage below the charred ridges of Bull Head and LeConte. The fire will leave scars for years, but the forest systems will recover.

“This is not where our sadness lies,” she said as the air cooled rapidly beneath clear skies in the waning daylight some 2,000 feet above the heartbreak in Gatlinburg. “Our sadness lies in the town.”

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Josh O’Connor, division supervisor for the Southern Area Incident Management Team, speaks to media on Friday in the Twin Creeks section of Great Smoky Mountains National Park.Thomas Fraser

Josh O’Connor, division supervisor for the Southern Area Incident Management Team, speaks to media on Friday in the Twin Creeks section of Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Fire is a fact of forest life.

“Fire plays a natural role in this ecosystem; now, normally, a fire wouldn’t burn as much as this one did,” says Josh O’Connor, division supervisor for the Southern Area Incident Management Team. “For the most part, everything should recover pretty well and I think that people will be surprised at how quickly things will come back here.”

Smokies personnel have a tremendous balancing act, Grissino-Mayer says. Controlled fires are set in the park to help reduce Cades Cove underbrush and improve forest habitats for plants such as table mountain pine and red-cockaded woodpeckers.

But they are not on the scale needed to prevent massive wildfires, he says, especially in the areas where development meets the park border. And the balancing act involves economic considerations.

“That smoke would shut the towns down,” he says. “There needs to be a greater dialogue; there needs to be proactive management around the park.”

From the private-sector perspective, he says builders could consider fireproof materials, such as painted concrete, and consult fire ecologists. Developments could include buffers between homes and the park, or Gatlinburg and Sevier County could demand them via ordinance. In terms of immediate evacuations from wildfires, he nearly laughs. In the midst of such an inferno: “There’s no adequate egress point. I’ll put it like that.” Municipalities, especially those with cabins studded on forested ridge tops, “need to think about the environment before they go around issuing permits.”

Gatlinburg city manager Cindy Ogle and Mayor Mike Werner lost their homes in the fire.

Failure to act proactively will simply be “setting them up for another catastrophe,” once rebuilding commences, he says. He ticks off a list of communities that are at risk of similar firestorms as people are drawn to develop the beautiful but potentially deadly ridges of the region: Townsend. Happy Valley. Cherokee.

“It’s a safe bet one of these places is going to burn up in the near future,” he predicts. 

Staff Writer

Knox County-based journalist Thomas Fraser is a native of Charleston, S.C. who grew up in Oak Ridge and Knoxville. He is a graduate of the University of Tennessee and has worked as an editor and reporter for daily newspapers and websites in Tennessee, North Carolina, New Jersey and Virginia.

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