Understanding the Chimney Tops 2 fire
Over the past year, officials with the Great Smoky Mountains National Park have been criticized for their handling of the Chimney Tops 2 fire. Many people have blamed officials for allowing the fire, which began at the popular Chimney Tops area in the center of the park, to burn past containment lines and grow to its devastating size.
On Aug. 31, 2017, the National Park Service released the findings of its months-long investigation into the handling of the Chimney Tops 2 fire. The report revealed a timeline of action from the moment the fire was detected to the point at which the fire crossed park lines. That report also answered that criticism. Was the park at fault? According to the report, no. Investigators found the park was not at fault, saying, "We found no evidence of negligence by anyone in the park. They did the best they could with what was in their hard drive. No one had seen this before."
Aside from clearing park officials of negligence, the report also laid out an extremely detailed timeline of the fire.
According to the report, the fire was first detected on Chimney Tops at approximately 5:19 p.m. EST on Nov. 23, 2016. At that time, officers were searching for the source of a reported car fire. During that search, the park’s Fire Management Officer spotted smoke rising from between the two Chimney Tops landmarks. He and a second firefighter hiked to the location, where they discovered the fire burning below the northern peak.
They determined it was unsafe to take action that night. It’s important to note that most of the fire staff was on leave for the Thanksgiving holiday at this point. Though the park was in “severity” status, no leave requests were canceled.
Over the next two days, the Fire Management Officer worked with other NPS firefighters to address the fire. They climbed to Chimney Tops 1 and 2 and to other locations for varying perspectives of the fire almost daily. At this time the fire had burned less than 10 acres. No active flames were discovered, only smoldering duff (a layer of decaying forest litter). Conditions were limited to calm winds and minor rain.
During that period, officials also devised a containment strategy. Much of the terrain surrounding the fire was deemed “too steep for attack,” and the Fire Management Officer said it was “evident that building direct fire line in the boulders, cliffs and duff would be impossible.”
Instead, they looked for natural and man-made barriers, drafting a “box” that would hold the fire to approximately 400 acres if it continued to burn. The north, east and west boundaries of the box followed waterways that had historically been regarded as “sound fire spread holding points" - in other words, natural containment lines.
Saturday seems to be the first time officials saw a fire weather planning forecast that referenced incoming high winds on Monday. That forecast included rain later Monday night.
Now the team monitoring the fire had grown to include eight members, but fire activity still appeared minimal and the entire burn was limited between six and eight acres.
By Sunday, Nov. 27, the fire had grown to 10 acres. According to the Fire Management Officer, more smoke was now visible above the burn.
Many people have asked why NPS officials didn't begin treating the fire from the sky by this point. According to the report, they did.
The Fire Management Officer said his observations Sunday morning led him to believe the fire was becoming more active, prompting him to order additional resources. Those resources included a helicopter capable of making bucket drops, an interagency air attack aircraft, and two additional helitanker helicopters. Each of those helicopters would be dedicated to making water drops.
The first water drops began at 1 p.m. The FMO estimates the first helicopter made 10-11 drops, carrying water from the Little Pigeon River to Chimney Tops. At 3 p.m. the helitanker helicopters began dropping water over the fire, adding another six drops. The purpose of those drops was specifically to prevent the fire from backing down the mountain into the Chimneys Picnic Area.
During that time, crews conducted the first infrared aircraft flight. The fire had now grown to 35 acres. Again, the Fire Management Officer climbed to a point where he could view the fires. Despite the growth, he noted that “you couldn't even see the fire except for a couple of glowing areas,” and that fire activity seemed minimal. Because of these observations, all fire personnel were released at 8:15 p.m.
By 7:30 a.m. Monday, the fire had reached the Chimney Tops picnic area, with at least one spot fire located a mile North of Chimney Tops. At this point the Fire Maintenance Officer estimated the fire was between 250 and 500 acres, which is anywhere from 7 to 14 times its size when infrared photos were taken the day before.
At this point four additional 20-person fire crews were called in, as well as a second incident management team. The FMO also called the Gatlinburg Fire Department to let city officials know that smoke could make its way into the city. However, he did not believe the fire would reach Gatlinburg.
By 11 a.m., the fire had spread to the Twin Creeks area, more than three miles from the fire’s starting location, and just 1.5 miles from Gatlinburg city limits. By 1 p.m., all available resources were actively fighting the fire at Twin Creeks. A call was made for air attacks to return, but weather conditions cut flights short.
At this point, the Fire Management Officer’s descriptions of the fire began to reflect the seriousness of the situation.
[The fire] “jumped road, jumped trails, jumped wet drainages and wide creeks. I mean there was no natural barrier.”
“Moving in so many different directions," his logs read.
“Very, very intense and very extreme. And then as the day progressed, the winds progressed and increased.”
“There’s no way this stuff could be humanly stopped.”
Outside of the national park, a voluntary evacuation of the Mynatt Park neighborhood began at noon. At 2:30 p.m., the Gatlinburg Fire chief activated a state-wide mutual aid call. At 5:45, the first brush fire was reported within Gatlinburg city limits.
Throughout the day Monday, GSMNP officials held multiple news conferences to provide updates on the status of the Chimney Tops 2 Fire.
At 3:57 p.m., officials from the Gatlinburg Fire Department, the city of Gatlinburg and the national park held an update on the wildfire. Those officials were relying heavily on the coming rain to help douse the flames. Several voluntary evacuations were already in place.
Fire Chief Greg Miller said, “We will not implement a mandatory evacuation until we feel like they’re going to be threatened, their health and their safety would be threatened by staying where they are.”
At 7:02 p.m., GSMNP Superintendent Cassius Cash, GSMNP spokesperson Dana Soehn and Gatlinburg City Manager Cindy Ogle held a briefing to update the status of the fire. At that time, Gatlinburg fire officials had declared an immediate and mandatory evacuation for residents in the Mynatt Park, Savage Garden Road, East Foothills Road, Davenport Road and Ski Mountain areas.
According to Cash, the fire was within a mile of at least one of those areas. Officials were directing evacuees to shelters at the Gatlinburg Community Center and Rocky Top Sports World. All southbound traffic was stopped on the Spur, as the fire had reached the land surrounding the highway. Already City Manager Cindy Ogle was calling the situation a phrase we’d hear over and over for weeks – “the perfect storm.”
During that update, Cash said he expected the fires to continue growing until the rain came, adding that he “would hate to make predictions on an unpredictable fire.”
Two further updates came at 8:25 and 9:37 p.m. At that point the fire was burning throughout Gatlinburg and had reached Pigeon Forge.