Remembering the Gatlinburg Wildfires five years later

GATLINBURG, Tenn. (WVLT) – On Nov. 23, 2016, the day before Thanksgiving, a fire began on the Chimney Tops Trail in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Authorities would later announce the fire was sparked by juveniles playing with matches and fueled by unusually high winds. Flames erupted in a remote area with steep terrain that made access to the fire difficult for firefighters. Crews spent Thursday through Saturday working to establish a containment area lower down the mountain. Helicopters made bucket drops to slow the spread of the fire.

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On the fourth day, winds picked up and the fire spread, but the Gatlinburg fire chief said projections showed no immediate threat to Gatlinburg.

Despite the predictions, on Monday, Nov. 28, dry weather and extreme winds caused the fire to grow rapidly. The chopper dropping water had to be grounded. That evening, wind gusts of up to 87 mph sent embers flying into Gatlinburg, wreaking havoc on the city and surrounding communities. All manpower and resources from the Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge Fire departments were used to stop the blaze.

Officials reported that evacuation alerts went out on cell phones, but some residents said they never received the alerts. At the time, the Gatlinburg police chief told WVLT News that cell phone towers were down in the area.

TEMA did not send out a mass evacuation alert because it said it did not have a preset message to accurately describe the situation.

A siren alarm system was used to evacuate the Gatlinburg area, but it is uncertain what time the sirens started, and some residents told WVLT News they never heard them.

Fourteen people were killed, and 191 people were injured in the fire. Flames destroyed nearly 2,500 homes and left an estimated $2 billion in damages. More than 11,000 acres were burned inside the Great Smoky Mountains National Park; more than 17,000 acres were burned throughout the path of the fire.

It wasn’t until Dec. 13, 21 days after the fire started that the Sevier County Mayor announced that all fires in the city and the park were extinguished.

Officials with the City of Gatlinburg and Sevier County released heartbreaking 911 calls made prior to and during the deadly wildfires. The raw audio details harrowing escapes and the desperate pleas for help made by wildfire survivors when the flames approached homes and businesses. The recordings also detail the heroic efforts of crews battling the blaze behind the scenes.

“We believe there was no way we could have controlled the fire prior to the wind event. No number of firefighters could have stopped the fire in such wind conditions,” Great Smoky Mountain National Park Deputy Superintendent Clay Jordan told WVLT News in 2016.

When the fire spread throughout Sevier County, more firefighters were brought in than ever before to start evacuating certain areas, according to Gatlinburg Fire Chief Greg Miller.

The high winds knocked down power lines and started other fires, hindering communication to order mandatory evacuations.

“Our response was challenged due to loss of internet and cell service. Despite these challenges, we sent police fire and mass transit to evacuate citizens and visitors,” said Miller.

Survivors of the wildfires sued the National Parks Service regarding their response to the fires.

U.S. District Judge Ronnie Greer stated the National Park Service failed to notify park neighbors, visitors, and local residents of all planned and unplanned fire management activities that had the potential to impact them.

Greer said Park Fire Management Officer Greg Salansky did not warn Gatlinburg officials of the threat of the fire until Nov. 28, five days after the fire had started.

An internal investigation by then U.S. Secretary of Interior Ryan Zinke found that the National Park Service was unprepared but not negligent.

“I stand behind the people who made decisions. They made solid decisions and saved thousands of lives,” GSMNP Superintendent Cassius Cash told WVLT News in 2016.

Eleven plaintiffs are suing the National Park Service, and the cases are broken down into two phases.

Phase one will be a trial on duty and breach and will be applied to all parties involved.

Phase two is focused on causation and damages and will only be applied to a bellwether plaintiff which is someone who will be selected to represent the whole group.

All parties agreed that Phase two would not start until Phase one was finished, scheduling the Phase two trial 200 days after the court rules on Phase one.

A trial date is set for July 12, 2022, at 9 a.m. at the U.S. Courthouse in Greeneville that is expected to last ten days.

Michael Reed is suing on behalf of his wife, Constance Reed, 34, and their two daughters, Chloe Reed, 12, and Lily Reed, 9.

Reed took the family’s only car and left Constance and the two girls at home to drive to the Gatlinburg Welcome center to gather more information about what was occurring. While there between 7:30 p.m. and 8 p.m., they encountered a few park rangers, one of whom told them to “go to Pigeon Forge,” according to court documents.

During this time, Constance observed flames coming from a house across the street. She reached out to her husband to ask what she should do. He told her to contact 911.

She told the dispatcher, “The fire is next door to my house… My husband is not home. I don’t have a vehicle, and I have no way out of here. I have no way out, and I have children at home.”

The lawsuit alleges that the line went dead after the dispatcher told Mrs. Reed, “Stay with me.”

Documents filed in the case obtained by WVLT News show Reed filed a claim in 2017.

“The U.S. Government through its employees, failed to follow mandatory regulations to monitor and extinguish a fire in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, thereby allowing it to spread beyond the park boundaries onto claimants’ private property, destroying their property and resulting in the death of his wife Constance and their daughters Chloe and Lily,” court documents read.

He is requesting $250,000 in property damage, $150,000 for personal injury, and $13.5 million for the wrongful death of his wife and children.

Officials with the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation said two juveniles were charged with aggravated arson, but the charges were dropped, according to attorney Greg Isaacs.

Investigators said the state was unable to prove the criminal responsibility of the two juveniles beyond a reasonable doubt for the devastation that happened outside the Great Smoky Mountains National Park due to the high wind speeds that spread the fire from the mountains and into the city.

Those Lost

Elaine Brown, 81, died after she sustained a medical event that caused a multi-vehicle accident on Wears Valley Road while fleeing the fire.

Edward Taylor, 85.

Bradley Phillips, 59, was discovered at 412 Long Hollow Road.

John Tegler, 71, and Marilyn Tegler, 70, were dual citizens from Woodstock, Ontario, but owned a vacation home on North Skyline Drive in Chalet Village.

Jon Summers, 61, and Janet Summers, 61, were from Memphis, Tennessee. They were staying in Chalet Village on Crooked Ridge Road. Their three sons Paul, Shawn, and Phillip were sent to the burn unit at Vanderbilt Medical Center.

Officials said May Vance died of a heart attack in the wildfires and did not release further information other than they were from Gatlinburg.

Officials identified Robert A. Hejny, 63, who was found at Traveler’s Motel in Gatlinburg.

Alice Hagler was reported missing by her family and later confirmed dead.

Officials said three people were found dead from fires in the Chalet Village area, and one person was discovered dead near a motel on Highway 321. Three more people were found dead on Campbell Lead Road. Authorities did not release details about the other fatalities.

Twin brothers Beau and Zackary MacLellan lost their home and their jobs to the fire.

The night of Nov. 28, 2016, they weren’t aware of the chaos surrounding them until they received a knock on the door.

“We were so caught off guard. The cop was like, ‘You need to leave, like now,’” Zackary MacLellan reflected.

Country superstar and East Tennessee native Dolly Parton created the “My People Fund” to help victims of the wildfires.

The My People Fund gave families thousands of dollars and a chance for people to rebuild.

Volunteers from around the world calmed the fears of victims as they donated millions of dollars to the relief fund.

For the brothers, the My People Fund helped them get back on their feet.

“It brought a tear to my eye to see everyone coming together as one, and it reassured me that everything was really going to be okay,” Beau MacLellan said.

The brothers carry their work uniforms as a reminder of how far they’ve come since that night. And, it’s the days after that night that they said give them a new light in life.

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