GATLINBURG (WATE) – The National Park Service is continuing to fight the Chimney Tops 2 fire, but at a news conference Tuesday the Great Smoky Mountain Association and the Gatlinburg Fire Department outlined some of the decisions they made. They outline how the fire grew from a little more than an acre to over 1,700 acres.
“As we reflect upon what happened in the first 24 hours, I can tell you that I continue to hear stories of critical decisions during this crisis, which helped saved lives and courageous accounts of heroism from across agencies as well as citizens,” said Gatlinburg Fire Department Chief Greg Miller.
Sevier County Mayor Larry Waters said they are examining their procedures after the fires. The national park said they will continue to explore the lessons learned during the incident and they appreciate the outpouring of support and resources from across the nation in helping to fight the fire.
“First, we believe there was no way we could have controlled the fire prior to the wind event,” said Clay Jordan, Deputy Superintendent of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. “Second, the reality is that we believe no number of firefighters or fire engines could have stopped the spread of such an extreme wind-driven fire.”
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Wednesday, November 23
At 5:30 p.m. park firefighters observed a smoke column at the top of the Chimney Tops, which is located about 5.5 miles from the city of Gatlinburg. Jordan said the fire was about 1.5 acres in size, located in the North Spire.
“As darkness approached, a firefighting team hiked up the mountain to size-up the fire. They discovered the fire burning among a rock scramble at the top,” said Jordan. “Accessing this area of Chimney Tops is about a quarter mile rock scramble, beyond the peak that most hikers climb to at the end of the Chimney Tops trail.
Jordan said the park’s fire management officer was designated the incident commander. He said the fire management officer had 25 years of training and experience fighting wildland fires in the northeast with both the U.S. Forest Service and the National Park Service. With the rocky terrain and darkness, he said firefighters returned because there was nothing further they could do that evening.
Wednesday, November 23
The next morning, Jordan said the incident commander returned to the fire with a squad of firefighters. He said at that point the fire was creeping and smoldering in the thick vegetation at the top of the rocky summit.
“Given the inaccessible terrain, comprised of cliffs and thick vegetation, the crew decided that it was not safe, nor effective to dig a fire line around it, close to the fire, which is generally done by removing that vegetation down to bare soil as a method to stop the fire,” said Jordan. “They also knew that using helicopters to drop water on the fire would be ineffective. Bucket drops are used to slow an intensely burning fire, but they do not put out even a small wildland fire that is burning in deep duff.
Thursday, November 24
The park’s fire management team applied an indirect attack strategy by identifying a 410-acre containment area where the terrain allowed the fire to be fought safely and effectively, according to Jordan. He said that is a standard firefighter suppression strategy in mountainous terrain.
Jordan said he was briefed on the plan of attack along with the park’s chief ranger and they all agreed that the fire attack plan was the only practical option for controlling the fire as quickly as possible.
Friday, November 25
The fire continued to back down the steep rocky slopes.
Firefighters continued to scout for routes to construct firelines closer to the fire, but no effective alternatives were found, according to Jordan.
Saturday, November 26
By Saturday the fire had grown to six acres. A 4-Day Near Term Analysis from the USFS Rocky Mountain Research Station was requested. Jordan said their analysis modelled slow fire growth downhill over the next couple of days as the fire approached the containment boundaries.
The forecast did not model the behavior the fire generated on Monday, according to Jordan.
Sunday, November 27
On Sunday, the WATE 6 Storm Team says winds picked-up and the humidity dropped. Jordan said the changing conditions allowed the fire activity to pick-up. The WATE 6 Storm Team and the National Weather Service issued a high wind watch predicting strong winds developing late Monday afternoon.
Jodan said Great Smoky Mountain National Park requested a spot weather forecast for the fire from the National Weather Service. He said the forecast predicted winds of 12 miles per hour gusting to 25 miles per hour in the morning to increase to 20 miles per hour and gusts to 40 miles per hour by 6 p.m. He said the prediction was much lower than the wins actually experienced throughout the day and evening on Monday, considering gusts recorded nearby were up to 87 miles per hour.
In anticipation of the high-wind forecast, Jordan said they ordered three large helicopters, in an effort to slow the intensity of the fire as it continued to back down steep slopes toward the containment lines. Helicopters dumped water on the hottest sections throughout the afternoon.
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Meanwhile, Jordan said ground personnel worked on constructing firelines and improving the natural boundaries of the containment area. An order was placed for additional firefighters and wildland fire engines in preparation for the next day.
Late in the day Sunday, the fire was still at around 35 acres as mapped from the air using infrared sensors.
Monday, November 28
The WATE 6 Storm Team says the weather changed overnight. Strong winds pushed the fire towards the northeast.
After the sun rose, Jordan said park staff discovered that burning embers had created smaller fires called “spot fires” as far as a half a mile to 1 mile from the main fire burning on Chimney Tops. Those fires were around Chimneys Picnic Area. There was also a spot fire on Bullhead Ridge.
“What we were observing was extraordinary fire behavior,” said Jordan. “Spot fires half a mile or more from the fire in this part of the country, in our experience, is extremely rare. If fact, the incident commander had never experienced this in the Southeast in his 25 years of fighting wildland fire.”Given the strong winds, exceptionally dry conditions and fire on the ridgelines out of reach of firefighters, containment of the fire was going to require a much larger effort once the winds died down.”
Jordan said they immediately ordered the response of a large number of firefighting crews, air resources and a complex fire incident management team. At that point, he said the spot fire on Bullhead Ridge was still 4.5 miles away from Gatlinburg and separated by several mountain drainages.
“It seemed inconceivable that this fire should pose any kind of threat to the community before the weather was expected to calm that night. But given the extreme behavior we had observed, we notified Gatlinburg Fire Department of the situation anyway so they could watch for spot fires, as unlikely as it seemed at the time,” said Jordan.
With additional resources arriving, Jordan said the park’s focus shifted to what they could do to protect threatened park structures using wildland fire engines.
“We were unable to track the movement of the fire very well over the next few hours with the whole region shrouded in smoke. Plus, aircraft were unable to fly in the strong winds,” said Jordan. “Hidden from our view, yet another extraordinary aspect of this fire was occurring.”
At around 11:35 a.m., Jordan said a spot fire was discovered in the Twin Creeks are of the park, about 1.5 miles up Cherokee Orchard Road from the Gatlinburg city boundary. The fire was about three miles downwind from the Bullhead Ridge spot fire.
“We don’t know just how the fire crossed the drainages between the two locations: whether embers hopped from ridge top to ridge top, each time starting a new fire that would then grow hot enough to shoot off new embers, or whether some ember managed to sail several miles through the air. But either way, it is remarkable that the fire could spread 3 miles in just four and a half hours. This phenomena is usually only seen in the West,” said Jordan.
Gatlinburg Fire Department Chief Greg Miller said his firefighters positioned their trucks positioned at the park boundary and were prepared to hold the fire. He said they also started building fire lines with bulldozers.
“As a precaution, we went door-to-door with voluntary evacuations of Minot Park, the most threatened neighborhood at that time,” said Chief Miller. “Over the next several hours our call for mutual aid from across the state arrived to provide protection all along our boundary as we focused efforts on the expected threat from the Twin Creeks area.
Chief Miller said the incident was the greatest call-out of structure fire units ever assembled in the city of Gatlinburg. He said over 200 firefighters representing multiple fire agencies from across the state responded to help the Gatlinburg Fire Department.
Between 5:45 p.m. and 6:00 p.m., Miller said the Gatlinburg Fire Department had multiple fires begin to ignite around Gatlinburg. Just before weather monitoring equipment died due to a power outage, the WATE 6 Storm Team said winds were recorded up to 87 miles per hour at 6:00 p.m. at Cove Mountain, which is just above Gatlinburg.
“We were forced into a reactive response; multiple trees were falling, multiple power lines were down and multiple other areas of ignition occurred,” said Miller.
A mandatory evacuation of the Minot Park community was issued at 6:00 p.m. and a mandatory evacuation of the Turkey’s Nest area was issued at 6:27 p.m.
At 6:08 p.m., Miller said the fire from Twin Creeks physically crossed the park boundary towards the Park Vista Hotel. Several other fires had started throughout the city.
At around 7:00 p.m., Miller said crews started systematically evacuating the most immediately threatened areas. He said their efforts were focused around sending emergency resources to new calls and continuing to suppress the fires.
“At this time it was vital that incoming emergency traffic responders had open traffic routes to quickly access the fires. In order to achieve this we continued to focus on removing the residents and visitors from the most vulnerable areas,” said Miller.
By 8:00 p.m, Miller said the Ski Mountain area was added to the list of mandatory evacuations. At 8:14 p.m. he said they started to have widespread loss of power across Gatlinburg.
“Fire resources became depleted, the wind driven nature of the fire challenged suppression crews from extinguishing the growing blaze,” said Miller. He said a total evacuation of the Gatlinburg area was ordered.
At 8:30 p.m., Miller said Sevier County Emergency management Director John Matthews was able to make a cell phone call with the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency (TEMA) to ask them to send a public alert and warning system evacuation message to mobile devices to announce that the Gatlinburg area was to be evacuated.
After that, Miller said two Verizon cell phone towers went down and service was interrupted. At 8:40 p.m., when TEMA tried to call Mathews back to get his approval of the message, Miller said they were unable to reach him because of an infrastructure failure.
“Therefore, TEMA could not send the message, because the verbiage had not been approved. That is important to note, because we didn’t want an inappropriate message to be disseminated which could have evacuated people towards an area of concern, rather than away from it,” said Miller.
Miller said the National Weather Service independently contacted the Sevier County E-911 to see if they could help with an alert message after they were not able to contact Matthews. A supervisor at Sevier County E-911 was able to confirm to the National Weather Service that they did want an alert sent out. The message was sent at 9:03 p.m.
“News media reported the evacuation notices which were shared through social media sites and we are eternally grateful for the multiple avenues that were shared in the evacuation message. Those messages enabled over 14,000 people to get out of town safely under incredibly challenging and fast-moving crisis situation throughout our county,” said Miller.
The city’s flood warning siren system was also activated twice between 8:30 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. A news conference was held at 9:00 p.m. to announce the mandatory evacuation of Gatlinburg.
Miller said despite being severely challenged due to downed trees, downed poor lines and loss of power, landline phones, internet and cell phone service, they were able to send police, fire and mass transit personnel door-to-door in many areas to evacuate citizens and visitors.
“During these door-to-door evacuations we encountered many residents who were resistant to evacuation until we convinced them to step outside and look at the conditions,” said Miller. “Even with that, there were other that adamantly refused to evacuate. As a professional emergency responder. In spite all of the lives that were saved, I along with my fellow emergency responders will always grieve the lives lost.”