GATLINBURG (WATE) – Things got a little heated during the end of a Friday morning news conference on the fires in Sevier County.
The briefing started on a somber note, Sevier County Mayor Larry Waters increased the death toll of deaths related to the fires to 13. Sevier County Medical Examiner’s office released the names of five victims that died in the fire.
Governor Bill Haslam, along with Senator’s Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker attended the news conference. They said they were shocked by the recent events, but encouraged by what they’ve seen.
“We’re stunned by this. The character of a community or of a people of a community is measured not by how well you deal when things are going well but with how you deal with adversity. The fire is terrifying and impressive but the response is even more impressive,” said Senator Alexander.
However, the briefing ended abruptly after officials were peppered, specifically by one North Carolina reporter who accused someone of “dropping the ball” when it came to fire and evacuation preparedness.
“It wasn’t a ‘dropping the ball.’ The day before the wind advisory came in we actually had four helicopters doing bucket drops on the fire,” said National Park Superintendent Cassius Cash.
The reporter asked, “Who was working that fire? Who was forecasting that weekend?”
Cash explained that crews were working the fire, but because of the rocky location, it was dangerous to put crews on the top of the Chimneys and build a fire line around it.
“We had the appropriate amount of resources that allowed us to fight that fire in an aggressive, but still safe manner,” said Cash. “There was a high wind advisory and we were very much aware of that, which is why pulled in those ships to try to knock it down as much as possible, if not put it out, so we weren’t blind to knowing that there was a high wind advisory.”
“Why not then evacuate? Like in North Carolina, I can tell you I’ve covered the Party Rock fire. They evacuated very aggressively and no one died, thankfully in those fires,” asked the reporter.
Cash responded saying, “first, I don’t have the jurisdiction to evacuate a town. We work collectively and that is exactly what we did on Monday with the city manager and myself, saying okay, within a certain proximity it is prudent for us now to start thinking about moving people.”
“But Monday was too late. We had people die. Can anybody we….,” said the reporter.
“I think what we are getting into is folks that don’t know this area and are Monday morning quarterbacking,” said Waters. “We are not going to get into that right now, because we did the best… we’re not going to into Monday morning quarterbacking right now. That will be something when we have the evaluation that we’ll certainly take a look at and ask these questions.”
When asked about the exchange during a news conference at 4:00 p.m. Friday Waters said:
There has never been an event even close to what happened. It was the perfect storm and it was a tragedy that everything had to fall in place to happen, so it was a difficult situation for everyone and they worked hard to deal with it as best they could and as I said early in the day, you know, we’re going to evaluate at the appropriate time, the responses and what went on, but this is not the appropriate time. We’re focused on getting folks help right now and determining… getting people back into their properties and those types of things and you know, I understand frustration and I understand a lot of the things that happened, but that’s what we’re focused and there will be an appropriate time to address all that and we’ll do that.
WLOS issued the following statement:
“We at WLOS News13 stand with all the people and first responders in Tennessee, battling the historic and deadly wildfires around Gatlinburg. We remain committed to covering this tragic story to the best of our ability, reflecting the highest standards of journalism. We always encourage feedback on ways we can best serve our audiences.”