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Sevier County officials hope improvements will stop communication struggles in case of future wildfires

In the 2016 wildfires, communication issues stopped some people from hearing about evacuation orders.

GATLINBURG, Tenn. — From his new condo on Gatlinburg's Ski Mountain, Bob Ward still remembers how close he came to the flames of the 2016 Sevier County Wildfires. 

"At one point, I passed so much fire that I could feel the heat through the window of the car," he said. 

Ward left his old house just in time; his doorbell camera captured the fire engulfing his Chalet Village home six minutes after he decided to leave. 

He said he kept waiting for an order to evacuate but said none ever came. 

The fire interfered with cell service and internet services. No text alerts were ever sent. The directions that helped Ward get off the mountain came from neighbors who were trying to do the same thing.

Now, 5 years after the fires, Sevier County's Emergency Management Director said communication methods have improved. 

"We have not relied on one piece of technology, we have not relied on one means of communications," Joe Ayers said. 

Sevier County and Gatlinburg now have access to send phone alerts, text messages and calls. Mass notification can be sent via an AM radio station and with new warning sirens in the mountains around downtown. 

"We want to be sure we provide important clear and concise information to the public so that they don’t panic," Ayers said. 

He said the number of people signed up for the county's "Code Red" alert system has increased tenfold since the fires. 

Bob Ward said he can hear one of the new sirens from his new condo — and agrees the local government is better with communication than it was before the flames.

"They are miles and miles improved from where they were," he said.