National Park releases Chimney Tops 2 fire review report

FILE PHOTO: Chimney Tops (Photo: National Park Service)

GATLINBURG, Tenn. (WATE) — The National Park Service released their report on the Chimney Tops 2 fire in the Great Smoky Mountains.

The Chimney Tops 2 Fire burned 11,410 acres in Great Smoky Mountains National Park in November 2016. The park says the fire merged with other fires to become the Sevier County wildfires, which caused 14 deaths and millions of dollars in damage in the Gatlinburg, Tennessee, area.

After the fire, an independent team of seven inter-agency fire experts were delegated to review the fire. Between February and April 2017, the review team conducted research and interviews of personnel and leadership involved in the Chimney Tops 2 Fire. They used materials and information gathered during the fire cause investigation, their own interviews of involved National Park Service staff and cooperators, as well as fire weather data and other information to create a narrative of the event.

The report found that unprecedented conditions caused the fire to spread. The park said there are now steps and improvements the park put to prevent the tragedy from happening again.

Read the full report

“While visiting the Great Smoky Mountains National Park last week, I met with park staff, local officials, and members of the Gatlinburg community that were impacted by this devastating fire,” said Department of the Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke. “Based on those meetings and my review of the report, I am satisfied that it accurately describes the unusual and unexpected conditions that resulted in the largest fire in the park’s history and a series of other fires around the park, which caused so much devastation to the community of Gatlinburg. I am committed to leading efforts to ensure that the National Park Service, along with other land management agencies, state and local governments take the lessons learned from this horrific fire and make changes that will help us prevent tragedies like this in the future”

Timeline

  • Wednesday, November 23 – Fire detected on the Chimney Tops around 5:19 p.m. A fire management officer hiked into the fire, taking along another firefighter, and determined it was unsafe to take action at that time.
  • Thursday, November 24 (Thanksgiving) – A “box” is identified to hold the fire to approximately 400 acres. It is only planned and not implemented. The fire smolders, but no crews directly attack it. It grows to around 2 acres.
  • Friday, November 25 – The fire is still smoldering, but has only grown slightly. Cloud cover prevents attacking the fire from the air. Crews scout for ways to implement the “box” but take no action. Information is released to the public about trail closures and smoke.
  • Saturday, November 26 – Forecasters call for winds of over 40 mph with rain on Monday. The fire gets more active, but no crews directly attack it. It grows to around 8 acres.
  • Sunday, November 27 – Fire increases and air resources are ordered. Helicopters make drops Sunday afternoon. The fire is determined to be around 35 acres. Crews construct some firelines in the proposed “box” area.
  • Monday, November 28 – By 7:30 a.m., the fire has spotted across Newfound Gap Road and grown to at least 200 acres. By 11:35 a.m., the fire has spotted to the Twin Creeks area. The Gatlinburg Fire Department activated a countywide Wildland Task Force at 11:52 a.m. At noon, Mynatt Park was voluntarily evacuated. At 2:30 p.m., the Gatlinburg fire chief activated a statewide mutual aid call. At 5:45 p.m., a brush fire was reported inside the city of Gatlinburg. By 6 p.m., the fire is observed leaving the national park at Park Vista.

Staffing concerns

One thing brought up in the report is a lack of staffing during the early stages of the fire due to the Thanksgiving holiday. The fire management officer (FMO) had assumed command of the fire ans was functioning as incident commander. Most of the fire staff was on leave due to the holiday and other than one fire engine and two firefighters brought in with what’s known as severity funding, the FMO had not staffed extra resources to cover leave requests and had not cancelled anyone’s leave request, even though the park was in severity status.

The report says national parks can use wildland fire suppression funds for additional staffing based on elevated danger and weather forecast.

One of the final findings of the report was that the “park’s Step-Up Plan was partially met, [but] the personnel necessary to meet the Step-Up Plan were not ordered or on duty.” The severity request from the park was for existing hours for additional personnel and did not include a request for funding for additional resources to provide adequate staffing for the exiting fire danger conditions.

Because of the staffing issues, the FMO was simultaneously serving as duty officer and incident commander, contrary to NPS policy.

Radio communications

As the fire approached the boundary of the park, interoparability issues became apparent. Park fire crews were not able to communicate with crews from adjacent jurisdictions using their radios as they were not compatible. The park also utilizes a repeater system that can become easily overwhelmed. Additionally, there is no ability to communicate directly with interagency coordination centers in Tennessee or North Carolina by radio, only by phone, even though there is little cell phone service within the park.

The National Park Service has said it is working to resolve these issues by upgrading the park’s radio communications system to ensure interoperable communication between the park’s emergency responders and local cooperators, with capacity to accommodate multiple simultaneous incidents. This is a $2.5 million initiative through a public-private partnership with the Friends of the Smokies and the National Park Service.

They’re also working to issue seven neighboring fire departments portable radios and personal protective equipment this fall with funding through the Department of the Interior Rural Fire Readiness program.

Other concerns

The park says it will work to implement the goals of the National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy, which prioritizes healthy and resilient landscapes, fire adapted communities, and safe and effective response. This includes efforts to actively manage vegetation and fuels effectively, removing dead and dying trees.

They are also working to assemble a Management Action Team of fire and leadership experts to take immediate action at the local, regional and national levels based on the findings and recommendations from the report, as well as participate in a review of the broader Sevier County fires with local, state and other federal officials.

“We see this report on the Chimney Tops 2 Fire as the first steps of a journey that will help us institutionalize the lessons learned from the tragic Sevier County fires,” said National Park Service Fire and Aviation Division Chief Bill Kaage. “The review report is only the beginning of a longer process.”

The review team said a universal statement from responders was “I’ve never seen anything like this, and I never even imagined this could happen.” They say unless the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and National Park Service accepts and leads social and cultural change, history will be repeated. The possibility existing of a large-scale fire should be treated as the “new normal,” according to the report.

Senator Lamar Alexander issued a statement after the report was released saying:

“The fire that swept through Sevier County last November was heartbreaking, and I could not be more impressed and thankful for the hard work and bravery of our firefighters, police, and other first responders, and local, state and federal officials, who saved lives and have helped the area rebuild and recover.

“The bottom line is the Great Smoky Mountains National Park was not prepared for something this unprecedented. The review makes several useful recommendations to be better prepared for fires in the future, however the report also finds that many of those changes could not have prevented the tragedy that occurred in November 2016. Going forward, we will have to be prepared for fires we’ve never seen before in this part of the country.”

Timeline: Gatlinburg wildfires

Senator Bob Corker also released a statement saying:

“The people of Sevier County have shown incredible determination and resilience in the aftermath of this tragedy, and we owe it to them to ensure that the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is prepared to respond to an event of this nature in the future,” said Corker. “By outlining recommendations to enhance preparedness, this report is an important step in the right direction. I again want to applaud the first responders, as well as local, state and federal officials, who responded to this unprecedented emergency in a swift manner, and I thank them for the heroic work they did to save lives last November and for the work they continue to do to help the community rebuild.”

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