USA – GATLINBURG — Before the Nov. 28, 2016, Sevier County wildfire, Robin Sutherland and her husband Cam owned three rental cabins in the woods around Gatlinburg.
They sold one a month before the fire and planned to build their retirement home at 702 Nocks Drive, in the hills behind Westgate Smoky Mountain Resort & Spa, on the same lot as their two remaining rentals.
The day before the fire spread to the city of Gatlinburg from the Smoky Mountains, the Sutherlands’ architect walked the property in preparation for building.
Afterward, Sutherland called him to say, “Well, we don’t have to worry about clearing the lot now.”
Both cabins burned down, and rebuilding is too expensive, she said. Instead they’re only planning to build their retirement home on the site.
“Progress is slow,” Sutherland said.
Many others are still rebuilding, too. Construction on the Sutherlands’ house was supposed to start in October, but they’re still waiting on bank approval.
“When I went up (to the site), I was very thrilled to see a Porta Potty there,” she said. “I thought, ‘Well, that’s something.’”
Sutherland said she greatly enjoyed talking to her guests, some of whom rented a cabin for their honeymoon.
“They would tell me, ‘Oh, we’re going to come back and stay here every year for our anniversary,’” she said. Some former renters still email her, hoping the cabins will be rebuilt, Sutherland said.
Widespread damage, widespread blame
Those cabins were among more than 2,500 buildings destroyed or heavily damaged by the wildfire two years ago, on Nov. 28, 2016. The fire burned for five days in an isolated part of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park before being whipped up by high winds and sweeping toward Gatlinburg. It killed 14 people, hurt nearly 200 more, and burned 17,000 acres, mostly of woodland.
A report by ABS Consulting that looked at local authorities’ response found, a year later, that police and firefighters did their jobs heroically but were hampered by lack of warning, overloaded communications, power failures and misunderstandings.
A similar review by the National Park Service blamed understaffing and incomprehension of the danger for a response that violated park service policies and didn’t do enough in time to warn people in the fire’s path. The report said such a fire will happen again unless changes are made.
The most critical factor, consultants found, was lack of early warning from park officials to local emergency responders – at the time, their radios could not communicate directly.
When the fire arrived on Gatlinburg’s outskirts, the volume of calls and radio traffic overwhelmed Sevier County’s E-911 system. And the city’s downtown emergency siren – originally installed to warn of floods – didn’t sound for an hour and 18 minutes after the city fire chief requested it. In the crowded, noisy command center, his several radio requests may have gone unheard. When the siren did go off, people outside the downtown area couldn’t hear it.
Even so, most of Gatlinburg’s 14,000 people evacuated safely, despite burning trees blocking some roads and fire already sweeping through outlying neighborhoods. The downtown business district survived largely unscathed, and flames got no further than the outskirts of Pigeon Forge.
What about the teens who started the fire?
Jimmy Dunn, Sevier County’s top prosecutor, sought to lay blame for the fatal fires at the feet of two Anderson County teenagers.
The teens, ages 17 and 15, were hiking on the Chimney Tops trail in the park on Nov. 23 and tossing lit matches onto the ground around the trail. Brush caught fire. The boys continued hiking down the trail, unaware they had sparked a fire. The National Park Service decided to let that fire burn rather than extinguish it. Five days later, winds of nearly 90 mph inexplicably whipped up, spreading deadly flames into Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge.
Dunn charged them with causing the fatal fires but later was forced to toss out the case.
In a written statement, Dunn cited the “unprecedented, unexpected and unforeseeable wind event” that occurred five days after the Chimney Tops fire as cause for why the boys could not be held legally accountable for the deadly wildfires. Those winds spread deadly embers into Gatlinburg and the surrounding region.
Dunn has refused to answer questions about it and did not mention in his statement that he didn’t have the power to prosecute the boys at all.
The USA TODAY NETWORK-Tennessee obtained records showing state authorities have had no legal authority to prosecute crimes in the park since 1997.
Those records show the park was left out of a 1997 agreement giving both state and federal agencies authority to prosecute crimes committed on federal lands.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office has declined to comment on whether federal prosecutors are considering any charges against the teenagers in connection either with the Chimney Tops fire or the Gatlinburg wildfires.
The after-action reports called for better communication between all agencies involved, and ways to get earlier warning not just to residents but to Sevier County’s thousands of tourists.
On the Sutherlands’ house site, a new utility pole has joined the Porta Potty, but otherwise the site remains bare, except for dead trees, Sutherland said.
“Now the issue we’re having is trees coming down every time we get heavy rains or wind or anything,” she said. “That’s going to be an issue for everybody in this area for years to come.”
Sutherland said she hasn’t seen any fire-related safety improvements around her houses site since the fire. She believes the nearest fire hydrant is still too far away and has asked the water department about it.
All the government agencies involved in the local fire response, however, say along with rebuilding have come safety improvements – some visible, some not, such as upgraded communication.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park
The park’s damaged trails have reopened, except for the last quarter-mile of the Chimney Tops Trail, said National Park Service spokesperson Dana Soehn. The last two trails – Bull Head and Sugarland Mountain – reopened Oct. 26. Friends of the Smokies members nationwide helped fund trail repairs, including $195,000 for the last two to reopen, Soehn said.
The park service has addressed one of the biggest factors cited in its report: upgrading its radios to add dedicated emergency lines, letting rangers for the first time talk directly to neighboring first-response agencies, Soehn said.
The park gate on the Gatlinburg Bypass has been moved to give people in the Ski Mountain community an easier escape route when the park itself is closed, she said. In conjunction with the Gatlinburg Fire Department, the park service installed a new emergency siren in the Sugarlands Visitor Center area, about a mile southwest of Gatlinburg.
To cut the risk of future fires, park workers have removed “heavy accumulations of dead wood and brush” for 1.5 miles along the park’s boundary in the Ski Mountain area, Soehn said.
And now the park service is letting nearby private landowners – with a special permit –remove flammable material on adjacent parts of the park itself, in order to create a fire defense under the National Fire Protection Association’s Firewise standards, she said.
Sevier County rebound is slow, steady
Rebuilding is far from complete in Sevier County – fewer than 40 percent of the damaged or destroyed properties have been rebuilt, according to county spokesman Perrin Anderson. But in the year after the fire, building permits in the unincorporated area – which saw most of the housing losses – spiked nearly 50 percent from the year before.
The county issued 943 permits in 2017; in the first 10 months of this year, it issued another 739, Anderson said. If that trend continues, 2018 won’t equal 2017, but will still be up substantially from the pre-fire number, indicating that rebuilding and new growth continue.
Even with rebuilding incomplete, the county’s assessed property values are up $65 million from fire pre-fire values, Anderson said. And lodging revenue in Sevier County – outside the three main cities – was almost 18 percent above 2017’s numbers through October, he said. Sales tax receipts for the same area are up nearly 14 percent.
A major problem even before the fire was a lack of affordable housing in Sevier County. With many rental properties lost, employers complained they couldn’t find staff for their restaurants, hotels and attractions due to the housing shortage. Since then, the county has worked with state agencies to get developers to build more apartments for the local workforce, Anderson said.
To aid in any future emergency, navigation signs have gone up in Gatlinburg and more will be posted elsewhere in the county soon, he said. Some emergency sirens have been installed, and more are coming.
Nearly 20,000 people in Sevier County have registered for the Code Red emergency notification service, Anderson said. CodeRED can send out mass alerts by phone, text and email. The county had about 37,000 households at the end of 2016, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Sevier County and Gatlinburg officials are still reviewing recommendations made in the fire after-action report and implementing them whenever possible, Anderson said.
“From day one we said we hope an event like this never happens (again) but we are determined to make improvements in as many areas as possible,” he said.
Gatlinburg bounces back
In Gatlinburg itself, the city hardest hit by the fire, 2016’s “banner year” tax receipts have fully rebounded – plus 1.1 percent – in 2018 so far, according to Marci Claude, public relations manager for the Gatlinburg Convention & Visitors Bureau.
From Jan. 1, 2017, through this October, Gatlinburg issued 377 “rebuild permits,” she said. In the two previous years, the city issued only 61 building permits.
“The Building and Planning Department has worked above and beyond to help Gatlinburg come back from the 2016 wildfires,” Claude said.
The city also issued 336 new business licenses since the fire. Claude pointed to major new attractions including Anakeesta and the Margaritaville Resort Gatlinburg, and renovation or expansion of others such as the Gatlinburg Sky Lift and Ripley’s attractions, plus new hotels and restaurants.
Claude confirmed Gatlinburg is working with the county to implement all recommendations from the fire after-action report. Thirty-one have been done, with the remaining 10 “still in progress,” she said.
The navigation signs Anderson mentioned are going up in Chalet Village and North Chalet Village, Claude said. Those neighborhoods were among the worst affected, losing 533 cabins. The city spent $20,000 on the signs, which are reflective and fire-resistant, she said.
Gatlinburg spent $485,150 to upgrade its emergency warnings, including a new siren system, 1680-AM radio station and CodeRED notification service, Claude said. In case cell phone towers go out, first responders can use satellite phones – bought by Gatlinburg for $31,300, she said.
The city spent $574,000 to buy 14 more police cars, which officers can take home. That should cut emergency response time, Claude said.
Gatlinburg’s firefighters have had more than 500 hours of wildland fire training this year, Claude said. The department now has more Fire Commission Wildland Firefighter 1&2 certified personnel than any other Tennessee fire department, she said.
“In March 2018 the City of Gatlinburg became one of only three cities in Tennessee to gain National Firewise Recognition,” Claude said via email. “The City Parks and Recreation Department has spent hundreds of hours landscaping according to Firewise Practices.
“Working jointly with Tennessee Division of Forestry, the Gatlinburg Fire Department has spearheaded efforts to educate Gatlinburg citizens on how to implement Firewise practices at home. The Department has hosted two outreach events and is working with local neighborhoods on becoming Firewise communities.”
Pigeon Forge also becomes ‘Firewise’
The National Fire Protection Association lists 25 Tennessee locales as Firewise participants, but those include unincorporated areas such as Chalet Village as well as Gatlinburg. Six of the listed communities are in Sevier County, including Pigeon Forge.
Gaining recognition for adoption of Firewise practices is probably “the biggest thing we’ve done,” Pigeon Forge Fire Chief Tony Watson said. Through a federal Firewise grant, Pigeon Forge firefighters now offer free wildfire-safety assessments of commercial and residential buildings, he said.
“That includes rental cabins,” Watson said.
In a year, the department did 544 “curbside” and 300 full walk-through assessments, he said. Recommendations include keeping leaves off roofs and out of gutters, screening vents to keep out embers, using plants that don’t burn easily, and keeping flammable plants, leaves or dead wood 30 to 50 feet away from a structure, Watson said.
The department will give full details on a flash drive; however, all the Firewise recommendations are “purely suggestions,” not mandatory or enforceable, he said.
Through another grant – Community Planning Assistance for Wildfire – Pigeon Forge is getting a thorough assessment of fire preparedness and a list of recommendations, Watson said.
“We think that we will have the first draft … by probably the first of the year,” he said.
The fire department has added four personnel since the fire, and meetings continue on improving warning communication between agencies, he said. Being able to talk directly to GSMNP rangers is a big help, Watson said.
“We’ve really worked hard at just making those relationships stronger,” he said.
In 2016 the city had one Smokey the Bear roadside sign with a moveable arm showing the current level of fire risk. It’s being refurbished, and more are coming, Watson said.
“We’ve got three more of those ordered to put up throughout the city,” he said.
More grants have been used to upgrade existing systems, but Sevier County’s addition of the Integrated Public Alert & Warning System, or IPAWS, is “huge,” Watson said.
“I always was worried about ‘How do we reach our transient population? How do we reach our visitors?’” he said. “This gives us that means to do that.”
Sevierville adds alert systems
Sevierville took no serious damage from the fire, but is adding alert systems, said Bob Stahlke, city public information officer. Sevierville had CodeRED even before the fire, but city officials can activate the county’s new IPAWS system to send out alerts on landlines, cell phones and email, he said.
“Additionally, we have studied an outdoor warning system through the same vendor being used in other areas of Sevier County,” Stahlke said in an email.
The city is partnering with Sevier County to use the county’s former fire siren as a downtown alert in Sevierville, hooked into the county’s outdoor warning system, he said.
“Once completed, it can be activated by Sevierville or Sevier County officials,” Stahlke said. “We will continue to study the feasibility of additional warning systems for our city.”