A team of fire experts assembled by the National Park Service will be in Sevier County next week.
Their mission is to assess the decisions made in the days leading up to the deadly wildfire outbreak in late November and determine possible changes that could lead to fire fighting improvements nationwide in the future.
On Nov. 23, park officials discovered a fire burning on the Chimney Tops trail in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
The fire grew until on Nov. 28, hurricane-force winds spread the flames into Gatlinburg. The wind downed several power lines, sparking additional and unrelated fires. The entire outbreak killed 14 people and forced more than 14,000 residents and tourists to escape.
When park officials discovered what's called the Chimney Tops 2 fire burning on that Wednesday, Nov. 23, it spanned just one-and-a-half acres.
Many people have asked why park officials didn't try to put it out then, instead of letting it burn in a contained area.
"This was historical in nature. We've never had a fire do anything like what we witnessed," Great Smoky Mountains National Park Superintendent Cassius Cash said.
WBIR 10News sat down with Cash on Monday for an interview about decisions made regarding the Chimney Tops 2 fire.
Due to the rocky and steep terrain of the Chimneys, Cash said, park officials decided to contain the fire, instead of fighting it directly. They used existing barriers like streams and roads to contain the fire, encompassing some 410 acres.
"The fire started off very small," Cash said. "It was a creeping fire, because of the thick duff that's on the park floor, right? All those years of leaf litter that builds a big mat, if you will, so that fire was burning very slowly."
Over a two- or three-day period, he said, the fire grew to about five acres.
"It really didn't spread until that Sunday, when the winds really came in much earlier than anticipated," he explained. "When we discovered that the winds had picked up, the fire had already jumped outside of the containment area."
Crews dropped water on the fire using helicopters starting Sunday, Cash recounted.
But why didn't they do that from day one?
"It's important to understand that the water bucket drops, in my opinion, cannot put the fire out because the duff is so thick," he said. "It is used for a tool to slow the fire down, but not necessarily put it out."
Under normal circumstances, Cash said, the containment approach they took would have worked, but strong winds building Sunday into Monday changed the game.
"Looking at how this fire progressed - at the rate, the winds - I think if we would've had 1,000 fire fighters up there, we couldn't have stopped what was happening on that day, on the 28th, just because of the erratic winds, high winds," Cash said. "It was skipping along the top of ridges, going towards Gatlinburg."
The Individual Fire Review Team coming in next week will analyze the decisions made in the days leading up to the Nov. 28 outbreak.
"To us, it's really not over until we have that process, so we can take those lessons learned and talk about the things that went well and also kind of expand on things that we can do better," Cash said. "We share that information with fire organizations across the country and multiple agencies."
As for the park's recovery, Cash is hopeful.
"I'm very pleased to see that we have green grass growing back already," he said.
Grass roots will help re-stabilize the soil - a concern as heavy spring rains could lead to landslides.
"If you have a lot of vegetation missing, then when it rains really heavily like it does here, there could be a concern about structures and communities downstream," he said.
Wildlife is slowly returning to the nearly 11,000 thousand acres within the park boundary that were scorched in the fire.
"We've already had some of our collared bears to be in these burn areas," Cash said.
As for people concerned about fish in the stream, he said, the fire occurred outside of spawning season, "so we don't look to have any long term effects to our aquatic life."
"From shrubberies to grasses and trees-- it eventually will make its way back, just like the city of Gatlinburg is, in my opinion," Cash said.
A swath of scorched earth - called a burn scar - is visible from the popular Carlos Campbell Overlook off US 441 in the national park, two-and-a-half miles south of the Sugarlands Visitor Center.
The burn scar has a distinct shape. Some see an angel. Others call it an eagle.
It's located on the west end of Mount LeConte, on Balsam Point.
Some say the mark looks like a phoenix, the mythical bird that burns itself to ashes and then rises from those, born anew.
"We're Mountain Tough and we're going to rebuild," Cash said. "We're going to get through this, but we're going to do it better and we're going to do it smarter."
The Individual Fire Review Team will be in Sevier County for up to two weeks. After that, members will have 45 days to complete their report and submit it for review. Then, the Park Service says, it will be available to the public, likely in late March or early April.
See who is on that team HERE.
10News also sat down with leaders from Gatlinburg and Sevier County, to ask unanswered questions in the wake of the deadly wildfires.
See their responses HERE.