Tennessee Agency Responsible For Fighting Gatlinburg Wildfire Says It Did The Best It Could

Aug 9, 2017

The state agency responsible for fighting wildfires is defending its handling of the blazes that destroyed more than 2,000 structures in Sevier County last year.

The comments from the Tennessee Division of Forestry comes as officials are finally releasing records about the catastrophe, which caused $1 billion dollars in damage and claimed 14 lives.

The wildfires swept through Gatlinburg shortly after Thanksgiving. Many people were caught by surprise, and local officials have struggled to explain why the resort area wasn't evacuated before the fires became a threat.

But the Forestry Division believes there's not much it could have done differently. In fact, after reviewing internal reports, communications and feedback from firefighters, state forester Jere Jeter says its efforts were a "success," though he qualifies his praise.

"People measure success in different ways," says Jeter. "I visited there. I saw the work that our men and women did. And I was very proud of what they did. I wish we could have done more."

The Department of Agriculture, which includes the Forestry Division, released more than 1,400 documents Wednesday, including emails and post-fire assessments. Some comments in the documents are scathingly critical, and they provide more details about how agencies scrambled as the fires wiped out cell towers and land-based communications systems.

The Forestry Division oversaw only one piece of the response to the disaster — fighting the fires. It wasn't involved in getting people out of harm's way, a job that fell to the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency and local authorities.

The division also wasn't responsible for trying to contain the blaze in its early stages. For nearly a week, it smoldered on federal land, outside state jurisdiction.

"I have seen pictures of the fire when it was on Chimney Tops," Jeter says. "I'm certainly not second guessing anybody's decisions. That is very, very tough, steep terrain ... and very difficult firefighting situation for anyone."

Although Chimney Tops is only a few miles from the center of Gatlinburg, forestry officials say they did not see it as a threat until Nov. 28, when high winds whipped up the blaze. Jeter says the Forestry Division began fighting it as soon as it crossed off federal land.

"Gatlinburg was such a firestorm and fire conditions that are so out of the norm for the Eastern United States that it just created a situation that unfortunately took some lives."

A summary of feedback, titled "Observations and Suggestions Pertaining to the Fall Fire Season Events," suggests firefighters and support staff were fatigued by the wildfires and that outside resources — including firefighters sent from other states — could have been better utilized. The report, which was written by an outside contractor not involved in fighting the wildfires, also urges the Forestry Division to work with TEMA and local authorities to develop evacuation protocols.

"Do you think the loss of life would have been reduced if evacuations plans were in place and evacuations were ordered when Park declared a monster was heading to Gatlinburg?" the report reads. "Florida and California have good programs to study."

MORE: Observations and Suggestions Pertaining  to the Fall Fire Season Events

Still, Jeter says the Forestry Division is taking steps to improve future responses. It plans to install trackers on firefighting equipment, so they can be deployed more efficiently.

And the Forestry Division is going to retire the flip-phones that many responders carried during the fire. They'll now get smartphones that be used to call up maps and other critical information on the spot.