Hundreds of claims filed against federal government by Sevier County fire victims

Photo from December 6, 2016 of the Lodge at Buckberry Creek after the Gatlinburg fires.

GATLINBURG, Tenn. (WATE) — Attorney Sidney Gilreath says he is in the process of filing 200 claims against the federal government for the fire in Sevier County.

He says 74 claims have already been filed by Gatlinburg homeowners and property owners. Gilreath says the claims target the National Park Service for their role in the fire.

Thursday, the National Park Service released their report on the Chimney Tops 2 fire in the Great Smoky Mountains. 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.

Gilreath said the report shows the National Park Service was not prepared to fight this fire. He said they didn’t have the adequate number of people or equipment to handle it. He and at least 200 people plan to prove the park should have anticipated what was going to happen. He wanted to wait for the fire review report to come out before deciding to help Gatlinburg fire victims file a lawsuit.

“We felt like we would get more details about timelines and what happened,” said Gilreath.

He noted a funding request made by the park’s fire management officer that asked for money because of potential fire conditions.

“He had made this request several weeks before the fire citing the severe conditions so they knew about the severe condition,” he said.

Since he is confident about a victory in court, he’s now filing claims for 200 Gatlinburg fire victims against the Department of Interior. The claims add up to millions of dollars. Some of the 200 individuals include those who lost loved ones in the fires.

He plans to file a civil lawsuit against the National Park Service, instead of the City of Gatlinburg or the state. He said one reason is because the fire started on government property.

“If the people had started a fire in their yard and let it burn a government building, they probably would be sued by the government,” Gilreath said.

The report finds unprecedented conditions caused the fire to spread. Gilreath said this this will be an argument used by the defense.

“That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t be prepared,” he said.

Gilreath said they are also going after the federal government because there is no limit on the amount of money a person can get if they sue the National Park Service. That is not the case if a person files suit against the City of Gatlinburg or state.

Gilreath hopes to file all 200 claims by the next week or two. He said they must be filed for six months before he can file a lawsuit against the federal government. Once the six months pass, he will file a civil suit in the federal district court here in Knoxville. A judge will decide the case.

One thing brought up in the report is a lack of staffing during the early stages of the fire due to the Thanksgiving holiday. Also, fire crews were not able to communicate with crews in adjacent jurisdiction using their radios because they were not compatible.

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.

Read more: National Park releases Chimney Tops 2 fire review report

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