KNOXVILLE - A Knoxville attorney says he is representing roughly 200 people who plan to file lawsuits against the U.S. Department of the Interior in connection to the November 2016 Sevier County wildfires.
They're asking for compensation for losing their property, and for some families, for losing the life of a loved one.
Their case hinges on the lack of preparedness by the park, which their lawyer says could easily convince a judge to grant damages.
"We feel like that the federal government is responsible for letting the fire get out of hand and not managing it properly," said Knoxville attorney Sidney Gilreath.
Gilreath said his clients have a strong case.
"They knew, and we can prove this, that there were extreme drought conditions at the time," said Gilreath. "They knew that they were short on personnel and equipment because they put in a funding request in for extra personnel in November before this fire."
Gilreath said some of his clients are homeowners, property owners and renters who lost their homes in the fires. Others are business owners whose property was damaged or destroyed. Others don't live in Sevier County, but owned property there that was lost in the fires.
He says expert witnesses will also help his case.
"We'll have the witnesses to prove what we're saying," said Gilreath.
Experts like University of Tennessee professor Dr. Henri Grissino-Mayer, who specializes in natural hazards like wildfires.
"As that report says, history repeats itself," said Grissino-Mayer.
He wants to warn people a similar fire could happen again easily - it's not the 1 in 100 year fire you may think it is.
Grissino-Mayer said the National Park Service's after-action report about the wildfires said what he thought it would.
"It definitely brought out a lot of shortcomings of the National Park Service and Great Smoky Mountains National Park," said Grissino-Mayer. "It was critical."
The report mentions reducing some of the vegetation, like dying trees, to get rid of fuel for future fires.
"It's a railroad of fuels," said Grissino-Mayer. "It's continuous."
Grissino-Mayer said the way to reduce the chances for a big fire in the future is through prescribed burns - but those could also present a problem.
"As they found out in Gatlinburg, smoke is a bad thing for tourism, you see," said Grissino-Mayer. "So the park service has got their hands tied."
Smoke could cause tourism dollars to disappear.
"You're not talking about a loss of $10,000 or $50,000 you're talking about a loss of several million dollars, or probably more than that," he said.
The lawsuits have another few months before they move can forward.
Gilreath said he first has to file administrative papers before it goes before a federal judge. He has already filed some of the initial claims, and plans to file more next week. Gilreath said his clients will then have to wait six months before filing their lawsuits.
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