Possible landslides, water contamination and property value impact in the wake of the Sevier County wildfires were among the topics at a wildfire symposium Thursday at Lincoln Memorial University's Duncan School of Law in downtown Knoxville.
The event brought together experts in risk management, environmental impacts and law, as well as county leaders.
The discussion was, at times, candid, and one major concern heard throughout the day was the fire's impact on the environment and what that means for the people of Sevier County.
The deadly Sevier County wildfires of Nov. 28, 2016 killed 14 people, and damaged or destroyed some 2,500 structures, leaving behind toxic ashen remains.
Duane Graves works at an environmental science and engineering firm called Geosyntec Consultants and spoke to the roomful of attorneys and the general public at the symposium.
"And now, what? What are we going to do with this land?" he asked. "What happens if I buy land, to build on or play on, and it makes me sick?"
The Sevier County real estate market will likely start seeing a lot of activity, he said, as people begin selling their burned lots. That raises the question of how much clean-up is enough and who is responsible for that.
"Who cleaned up the property? Did they do a good job? Is it adequately protected against erosion?" Graves said. "What am I going to do about my neighbors below me - am I going to damage their property? What about neighbors above me - are they going to damage my property if their property is not appropriately handled."
He said burned slopes can lead to landslides and ash runoff could lead to contaminated water, if properties aren't properly cleaned.
Sevier County mayor Larry Waters also spoke at the symposium.
He said some buildings that burned were built before the adoption of modern building codes and that any rebuilding will have to comply with those updated standards.
"They'll have the various inspections that our building department does, make sure they adhere to that code," Waters told WBIR 10News.
Erik Cooper, a Gatlinburg resident with a background in risk management and insurance, shared his harrowing story of escape on the night of the wildfires.
"I was in the pit of hell. It was absolutely on fire on all sides of the road, starting at Wiley Oakley, where it meets Ski Mountain Road," he recounted. "There were spot fires all over the mountains around you. It looked like hell. It looked like Armageddon."
In a narrow escape, he led neighbors and strangers down the mountain and said the experience worsened his PTSD and left him with respiratory and sinus issues.
Knoxville attorney Sid Gilreath represents Cooper, who did not lose his two homes in the fire, and about 100 other people impacted by the Sevier County Wildfires, including a few families of people who died that night.
"How could due care on the part of some responsible individual, including the government, have prevented this injury?" Gilreath asked.
That, he said, is the central question in all of this.
None of Gilreath's clients have filed lawsuits yet, he said, but they are exploring that option.
Judge Gary Wade, dean of the Duncan School of Law, said the possibility of litigation does not surprise him.
"The threat of lawsuits are always there after damages like this. Personal injury, loss, death. I think one of the concerns has been whether the officials acted appropriately during the emergency. Obviously, hindsight is 20/20," Wade said, adding he lives in Sevier County and knows the leaders there. "I feel confident they handled it appropriately."
Gilreath said he believes Sevier County and its cities need to improve their emergency plans.
"Not only better plans for taking care of risk but also for warning systems," he said, "not only for fires but for floods or tornados or anything like that."
Mayor Waters said the county is making the proper strides toward recovery, including asking the state for $5 million dollars to improve emergency response.
"We're moving forward, we feel good about the progress," Waters said.
The county is also requesting from the state $5 million for infrastructure costs related to the wildfire, $5 million to address the county's shortage of affordable housing and $10 million to put toward advertising.
The whole country saw images of Gatlinburg and Sevier County burning back in late November, Waters said, and county and city leaders want tourists to know the area isn't wiped out.
"It's important because right now folks are making their decisions about where they're going to spend their vacation, and we want them to do it in Sevier County and Sevierville, Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg, and we want them to know that we're open for business," Waters said.
Post-fire response expert Michael Harding spoke at the symposium and heard Waters talk about the $10 million advertising plan.
"It's one thing to spend $10 million on advertising to tell everyone everything's cool, but it's got to be cool," Harding said. "Advertising is one thing, but you've got to spend it on solving the problem ... You take care of the public's perception by taking care of the problem."
Harding warned more wildfires and natural disasters are on the horizon, with the increasingly extreme patterns of weather and climate.
"Preparedness is everything," he said.
He spoke about the possibility of landslides on mountain slopes that experienced heavy burning in the wildfires, along with water contamination.
"When you get some serious rains and you get some runoff, that's going to go right into the creek," he said, of the ash that still sits on many properties he saw on a recent trip to Sevier County. "We were surprised to see so much debris sitting out on the foundations."
Graves, of the environmental science and engineering firm Geosyntec Consultants, said maintaining water quality is of the essence.
"Things that are critically important is to make sure that we maintain good water quality in our surface waters because that's an economic engine for the area," he said, adding, "It's important to make sure that debris is cleaned up in a way that leaves properties healthy and ready for reuse."
He said it wouldn't hurt for the county and cities here to check into the post-fire status of their public water infrastructure.
"The smart thing for reliability management and for public assurance is just to look," he said, adding the municipalities "probably will find nothing, but you don't know if you don't look."
All of these issues raised were helpful for the attorneys in the room, who could be called upon to represent clients in wildfire-related topics ranging from real estate to property loss.
“Any number of possibilities exist when it comes to the legal issues, the ramifications of all of the damage and loss as a result of the fire," Judge Wade said.
Sheri Fox, executive director of Legal Aid of East Tennessee (LAET), addressed the room Thursday. She said she's expecting an increasing amount of legal issues during the rebuilding process, including dealing with "unscrupulous individuals" who tend to show up in communities that have had disasters.
LAET has held a number of free legal clinics for victims of the wildfires, but Fox said she and her colleagues have been surprised at the relatively low turnout. She attributes part of that to fear, saying there are some undocumented immigrants, who fear coming forward to get help. While LAET, by law - because they are funded by the federal government - cannot provide those immigrants with help, Fox said they can be helped by one of the many attorneys who volunteered their time to help victims. She also said some people are simply unaware that help is available - or that they could even benefit from free legal aid.
The next free legal clinic is from 1 to 5 p.m. on Monday, March 27, at the Greystone Lodge on the River in downtown Gatlinburg. That's at 559 Parkway. People interested in more information can call Legal Aid of East Tennessee at 865.637.0484 or click HERE.
"Have you or someone you know lost your home, your job, your identification, or your possessions due to the wildfire and need legal advice on how to get back on your feet?" the flier asks, describing the event as a "FREE one-time legal advice for residents of Sevier County."
No appointments are necessary, it says.
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