A National Park Service official is shedding new light on the pending wildfire after-action report on the response to the Chimney Tops 2 fire.
This comes seven months after November’s deadly firestorm swept through Gatlinburg and Sevier County, leaving thousands of people with questions.
14 people were killed, and more than 2,500 homes damaged or destroyed. Two juveniles have been charged with sparking the blaze at the summit of Chimney Tops trail.
Since the fire began inside the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, an outside unit of the National Park Service has been tasked with producing the after-action report on the fire.
Heading that team is Bill Kaage, the chief of Fire and Aviation Management for the National Park Service. Kaage is based in Idaho.
“We owe all citizenry involved our due diligence and a good solid report with facts and findings, and we owe our engagement as part of that larger effort because of the natures of the fires that affected those local communities,” Kaage said.
Kaage said the document will provide a record of actions that could be used in future criminal and civil cases.
Not all fires in national parks warrant an external review, but in this case, one was ordered because of the lives lost, the scale of the damage and the spread of the fire outside the park, Kaage said.
He said while the Sevier County fires were not abnormal for the West, the scale and spread was surprising for Tennessee.
“Typically we think of that occurring in a California environment,” he said. “For an Eastern event, it’s fairly rare and quite unusual.”
Kaage said the report is scheduled to be released in mid-August. It was already delayed once, prompting pressure from Tennessee lawmakers.
U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander asked Deptartment of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to complete the report, speaking in a sub-committee meeting last week.
“I would appreciate your focus on it because it was a traumatizing event for the people of Tennessee and North Carolina,” Alexander said. “It destroyed half the economy of Gatlinburg.”
The initial draft of the report was completed before deadline on May 22, Kaage said, but further steps are delaying the release. All interviews have been conducted, but the team must still meet to compile any recommendations.
Then, the draft report will be sent to those interviewed to make sure they’re represented accurately.
The team will also brief Sevier County District Attorney Jimmy Dunn before the report is released to the public. It must also pass through the Office of the Solicitor General within the U.S. Department of Justice.
Kaage said their focus is the actions inside the national park, though once the first report is released, a more comprehensive study with other responding agencies is possible.
One question the NPS is working on: which secondary fires outside the park were sparked by falling embers versus downed power lines.
"It's very much an issue,” said Kaage. “And one that we're exploring right now. It's a conversation, it's a question that we've asked ourselves."
Kaage noted that the report will not be punitive in nature, but resulting corrective actions could include internal guidance for NPS employees, or policy changes.
Kaage cautioned that the report does not seek to second-guess the actions of responding officials, including if the fire’s extreme spread outside the park could have been prevented.
“If I was there, I don’t know how I would’ve reacted,” said Kaage. “So it’s really difficult for me to say whether I would’ve taken steps that would’ve precluded the fire from proceeding outside the park where it did.”
Some have criticized the Park Service for not fighting the Chimney Tops 2 fire more aggressively before the high winds grounded air support, spread embers across the county on Nov. 28. NPS representatives have pointed to the steep, difficult terrain at the summit as hindering efforts.
“They chose a strategy to fit with the environment,” said Kaage.
He noted that firefighters are allowed to decline assignments during a wildfire if they believe it puts their lives at risk. He was not immediately able to say if any firefighters refused to climb to Chimney Tops in the days leading up to Nov. 28.
“They had discussions amongst themselves as to what they could safely do,” Kaage said. “They did talk safety as part of strategy and tactics."
“They chose strategy and tactics that would fit with what they understood the fire to be given that fire environment and what they could accomplish given the people that they had with them,” Kaage said. “And that’s what you should do—if people don’t feel safe, you need to honor that.”
The report is due out in mid-August.