Mayor: Wildfires caused more than $500 million in damage

Officials give us an hour by hour explainer of what happend the night of the Sevier Co. fires and why mass evacuation orders did not go as they had hoped.

GATLINBURG - Sevier County Mayor Larry Waters said the deadly wildfires that swept through East Tennessee caused more than $500 million in damage to private and commercial properties.

The fires, officials said, took out 17,136 acres and destroyed, damaged or affected roughly 2,460 structures across Sevier County.

At one point,  investigators were looking for dozens of missing people, but they are now down to one.

“It is not 100 percent conclusive, but they (the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation ) feel that, that lead and the person that has not been identified is the same person,” Waters said during a news conference Tuesday morning.

Watch: Gatlinburg and Sevier County leaders speak at Tuesday news conference

Waters added that authorities have identified 13 out of the 14 fatalities connected to the wildfires.

Related: Friends remember Pam Johnson, missing since disastrous Sevier County fire

Great Smoky Mountains National Park Superintendent Cassius Cash said authorities will conduct an after-action review of the fires.

"I stand behind the men and women who made critical decisions throughout the history of this fire," Cash said. "I have full confidence in the leadership team, and believe wholeheartedly that the public service across agencies made solid decisions, which after listening to the stories, I have no doubt that they saved thousands of lives that night."

GSMNP Deputy Superintendent Clay Jordan provided a chronological summary of the Chimney Tops 2 wildfire during Tuesday's news conference. Jordan estimated Chimney Tops 2 is about 5.5 miles from the city of Gatlinburg.

Jordan said firefighting team discovered the wildfire, which was about 1.5 acres at the time, among a rock scramble at the north spire of Chimney Tops 2 on Nov. 23.

"The incident commander returned to the scene the next morning leading a squad of firefighters," Jordan said. "Given the inaccessible terrain comprised of cliffs and thick vegetation, the crew determined it was not safe nor effective to dig a fire line around it close to the fire, which is generally done by removing that vegetation down to bare soil as a method to stop the fire."

Jordan said using helicopters for water bucket drops would be ineffective at the stage of the fire on Nov. 24.

"Bucket drops are used to slow an intensely burning fire, but they do not put out even a small wildfire that is burning in deep duff," Jordan said.

The park's fire management team applied an indirect attack strategy by identifying a containment area, according to Jordan. The containment area mapped out a 410-acre area for crews to fight the fire safely.

On Nov. 26, authorities requested a four-day analysis from the U.S. Forest Service's Rocky Mountain Research Station.

"Their analysis modeled slow fire growth downhill over the next couple of days as the fire approached the containment boundaries," Jordan said. "This analysis did not forecast the behavior the fire generated on Monday (Nov. 28)."

Clay attributed said the humidity dropped on Nov. 27. The National Weather Service posted a high wind watch, which predicted strong winds developing  late Monday afternoon.

"We requested a customized, spot weather forecast for the fire from the National Weather Service in order to obtain more information specific to this fire," Jordan said.

Jordan said the NWS's forecast for Nov. 28 predicted winds of 12 mph with gusts up to 25 mph in the morning, and 20 mph winds with gusts up to 40 mph by the evening.

"This prediction we know was much lower than the winds actually experienced throughout the day and evening on Monday (Nov. 28)," Jordan said.

Winds at Cove Mountain reached up to 87 mph on Nov. 28.

Once the wildfires grew, authorities ordered three helicopters to dump water on the wildfires, according to Jordan.

"None of the city, county or national park officials had any indication that our town was going to suffer such a significant, widespread firestorm on Nov. 28," said Gatlinburg Fire Chief Greg Miller.

One fire behavior prediction model forecasted the fire wouldn't reach the city of Gatlinburg until Nov. 29, according to Miller.

The Red Cross shelter at Rocky Top Sports World moved to the Gatlinburg Community Center on Tuesday. Waters said 13 people stayed at the shelter on Monday night.

The Sevier County Solid Waste department established a temporary landfill next to the current landfill site at 1826 Ridge Road in Pigeon Forge, according to Waters.

The temporary landfill is for debris from the fires. It is open on Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., and on Saturdays from 6:30-11:30 a.m.

Waters said county leaders are working to extend the hours of the temporary landfill site.

The two juveniles arrested in connection with the Chimney Tops 2 Fire are still awaiting their first day in court.

The Sevier County District Attorney announced the arrest of two juveniles on aggravated arson charges last Wednesday. Authorities held the two at the Sevier County Juvenile Detention Center. 

The Chimney Tops 2 Fire is about 96 percent contained, according to the Chimney Tops 2 Fire Facebook page.

Waters, Cash, Jordan, Miller, Tennessee Emergency Management Agency director Patrick Sheehan, Gatlinburg City Manager Cindy Cameron Ogle and Gatlinburg City Mayor Mike Werner spoke on Tuesday.

"The No. 1 thing that you can do for us is come visit, and come visit soon because that is so important to us," Werner said.

© 2017 WBIR.COM


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