GATLINBURG (WATE) – The Gatlinburg fires have been called “the perfect storm” when a long drought, growing brush fire and hurricane force winds blew hot embers into Gatlinburg.
Just days after the fire, a reporter from North Carolina compared the fires to a fire two weeks earlier in Lake Lure, which is about an hour southeast of Asheville. The reporter asked who “dropped the ball,” who was overseeing the fire over the weekend, and why evacuations were not ordered earlier.
Officials were quick to defend their actions. National Park Superintendent Cassius Cash said the park always fought the fires aggressively, but safely and said “no one dropped the ball.” He said no one imagined the winds would sweep embers into the city that day.
“Monday was too late. People died,” the reporter said. The mayor interrupted her and all questions were cut off.
“Monday morning quarterbacking is wrong,” the reporter was told. She was also told it was impossible to compare the two fires. WATE 6 On Your Side wanted to find out if that was true.
A 25-acre fire started November 5 near Lake Lure about 35 miles southeast of Asheville. Fueled by weeks of drought, the terrain on remote Rumbling Bald Mountain is rocky. Firefighters from North Carolina battled the stubborn blaze known as the Party Rock fire. Over days the flames continue to spread and within a week, 3,000 acres are scorched.
A thousand firefighters from around the county were then on the scene.
“The Party Rock fire was an extraordinary fire for our community,” said Rutherford Emergency Management Director Jimmy Brissie.
Brissie and Major Frank Stout were among a group coordinating the firefighting efforts and the evacuation of 1,000 people.
“Sometimes we had 12 to 24 hours to make decisions regarding evacuations,” said Brissie.
“Deputies went door-to-door, knocking on the doors and issuing the mandate to leave,” said Stout.
The mandate included the village of Chimney Rock, the town of Lake Lure and other nearby mountain communities. Lake Lure Town Manager Ron Nalley showed how the Party Rock fire slowly spread in five days toward the Village of Chimney Rock. He said it moved northwest toward the Fairfield Lake and Rumbling Bald resort community. He said it was a fire unlike the area had seen before and covered more than 7,000 acres, but no structures were lost.
“We did have wind, but it wasn’t as severe as in Gatlinburg,” said Nalley. Gatlinburg experienced wind of 80 miles per hour, but the Party Rock fire only had winds of about 30 miles per hour.
With one road in and one road out, as the fire grew in size and inched closer to homes and businesses, evacuations began November 11. Two days later, people in Lake Lure and Chimney Rock were told to leave.
“We didn’t see fire to start with, but it moved into our area very quickly,” said Chimney Rock resident Ann O’Leary.
Ann O’Leary said everyone left orderly.
During the fire, for nearly two weeks, daily updates appeared on the town’s website and social media sites providing critical information.
“That was our goal was to get the information we had out to the public as quick as we could,” said Nalley.
In Gatlinburg, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park posted information about the fire at Chimney Tops to Twitter and Facebook on November 28, the day the fire spread to Gatlinburg. On the other hand, the city of Gatlinburg had no information about the fires on social media on November 26, 27 or 28.
Peter O’Leary is the mayor of Chimney Rock. He said having firefighters nearby and little wind to deal with helped save his community compared to Gatlinburg.
“There were a lot of similarities as far as the fire and the terrain. The difference is they got extremely high winds and we did not,” he said.
In Gatlinburg the wind-whipped wildfire swept through in a matter hours. Decision-makers said they had little time to warn people, not so in North Carolina.
“We had time to get resources in place, to provide that structural protection, when in a rapid-moving fire you don’t have that type of luxury,” said Brissie.
An evaluation of the Gatlinburg fire is currently underway by state and federal agencies, but the results are months away.
Another contrast between the two fires is in how close their origins were to the towns affected. The Party Rock fire started at the edge of the city limits, just a few hundred yards outside a neighborhood. The Chimney Tops 2 fire started in a remote location, more than five miles inside the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.