Wind, power lines named as likely causes of Gatlinburg fires

GATLINBURG (WATE) – When the state dropped all charges against the two teens originally accused in November’s deadly wildfires, the state said the juveniles could not be conclusively linked to all the destruction. The attorney general cited the wind and other possible ignition points that night.

There was never a question the hurricane-force winds played a major role in the fires. Three words in the newly released investigation report stand out, saying investigators “determined that the unprecedented, unexpected and unforeseeable wind event that started in the early morning hours of November 28, 2016, approximately four and a half days after the initial origin of the fire, was the primary reason of the Chimney Tops II fire traveled outside the park into Gatlinburg.”

Previous story: Charges dropped against juveniles in Gatlinburg wildfires

“I wouldn’t say it was unprecedented because we’ve had wind events before,” said WATE 6 On Your Side Chief Meteorologist Matt Hinkin. “We’ve had mountain wave events frequently in the fall and wintertime. So I wouldn’t say it was unprecedented.”

He also wouldn’t call it unexpected or unforeseeable.

“We had high wind watches and high wind warnings in effect at least 24 to 48 hours in advance. So we knew there was a strong wind scenario coming in our direction,” he said. “Unforeseeable, you know, wind and fire are not a good match. We’re not going to go on TV and say, ‘Hey, we’re going to have a major fire outbreak,’ because we didn’t know the scenario of the fire, but the wind obviously enhanced the strength of the fire.”

The WATE 6 On Your Side Storm Team was forecasting increased winds both the morning of the wildfires and the day before.

Another thing to keep in mind is how dry the area was.

“We only saw a quarter inch of rain for the month of November,” said Hinkin.

Fires were popping up all over the place prior to November 28, and once they were here, power lines snapped, adding more fire to the fuel.

The possibility of downed power lines and blown transformers being a source of so many of that night’s fire is not a new idea. Just hours after the fires and in the days following, both city leaders and residents said sparking lines were everywhere.

“You had telephone poles being knocked down and transformers sparking fires all over the whole area. It wasn’t just the fire in the park. There was a lot more to it,” said Gatlinburg Mayor Mike Werner in a December 2016 interview.

“A lot of the fires weren’t just the wildfires. It was transformers that blew down from power poles. That’s what started the one in Cobbly Knob, the one on 321, and we don’t know how many it started up here, but certainly the power lines were on fire going across the road up here,” said Carol Muszik whose home was destroyed.

Earlier this year, Sevier County Electric confirmed they had replaced 414 power poles and were still working on replacing others.

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