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Sevier Co. leaders leaned on lessons from Gatlinburg in 2016 wildfire response

The EMA director said his office "aggressively" sent phone notifications as more evacuations were ordered.

PIGEON FORGE, Tenn. — As the wildfire in Wears Valley began last Wednesday, Savannah Badalamente watched the smoke grow from the porch of a rental cabin on Hatcher Mountain. 

Visiting with her family from Macomb, Mich., she heard sirens and assumed firefighters would quickly get the blaze under control. It wasn't until her phone buzzed with an evacuation notice that she knew they needed to get out. 

"At that point we all panicked," Badalamente said. "We all turned and looked at each other and said, 'We got to grab a few things, whatever we can grab quickly in the next 30 seconds and hop in our vehicles and leave.'"

That notice was one of half a dozen alerts sent to phones across Sevier County during the fires. It was sent because of lessons learned after the 2016 Gatlinburg Wildfire according to Joe Ayers, the EMA director, at a press conference last Thursday. 

After 2016's wildfires, Sevier County implemented a streamlined phone alert system and added an FM radio station and warning sirens. The emergency manager activated all three systems during the fire last week. 

"[The alert] allowed us to give them specific instructions to hopefully get them out in time before any injuries or loss of life," Ayers said. "I believe that it worked well. We were able to get the messages out." 

Sevier County Mayor Larry Waters credited those developments to recommendations made in an after-action report following the Gatlinburg wildfire. 

According to a federal study, the majority of people had been largely unaware of wildfire risks after days and weeks of smoke in the air and had never been through an evacuation before. Only a small percentage said they were warned or received information that the fire was present through official sources, or received an evacuation notice. 

By contrast, when the fires began in Wears Valley last week, every phone in the county lit up with the evacuation alert. It's what got Savannah Badalamente and her family off the mountain.

"Remember that material things can be replaced, but lives can't," she said.

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