This fire had beaten expectations since its first day
Matt Lakin, Knoxville News-Sentinel
Greg Miller had seen worse. After 10 years as fire chief in a mountain tourist town, he knew the tactics of wild- land firefighting inside out. He’d taught them for years as an instructor in emergency medicine and fire science at Walters State Community College.
His crews faced wildfires – some inside the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, some outside – at least once every season. But this fire had beaten expectations since its first day five days ago. Now it was headed toward town with thousands of visitors still on the streets. Crews had built firebreaks at Mynatt Park, the most likely target. Would that be enough?
Defense plans depended on the fire sticking to its course. It didn’t.
Judging a fire’s speed and direction can be like trying to forecast the weather – only less predictable. As a blaze picks up size and speed, it creates its own ecosystem, sucking in oxygen, jumping with wind currents and bending the laws of physics to defy the best guess at its next move.
“A large fire like that turns out to be a living, breathing thing on its own,” said David Hotz, a National Weather Service meteorologist. “It’s going to start pulling in wind from a different direction than normal, pulling in air from all sides. I think the fire itself was a player in how it all spread that day.”
Given enough fuel, flames scale trunks to burst through the forest canopy and become a crown fire, roaring from tree to tree and outrunning the fire on the ground at speeds that can approach 8 mph. Researchers have warned traditional fire simulation models tend to “exhibit a significant underprediction bias” when forecasting a crown fire’s path.
And this fire had plenty of fuel – 80 years’ worth of overgrown forest, dried out by four months of drought on a path leading straight to the city.
The blanket of smoke covering Sevier County ruled out any attempt at reconnaissance from the air. So Miller and fellow fire officials consulted a predictive computer model at 4:30 p.m. with the variables they knew. That simulation showed the fire reaching the Gatlinburg city limits in 19 hours.
All the defense plans depended on the fire sticking to its course, northeast toward Mynatt Park. Around 5:15 p.m., rangers discovered the flames surging west toward the Great Smoky Mountains National Park headquarters and the Sugarlands Visitor Center.
Knoxville firefighters Jordan Adcox, A.J. Spoone and the rest of their crew sat waiting at Sugarlands with a 5,000-gallon tank of water as the offices emptied. They watched as an orange glow lit the sky to their left, then their right.
“It went around us on both sides,” Spoone said. “We couldn’t predict where it was going.”
Greg Salansky, the park’s fire management officer, called Gatlinburg to report the fire’s new direction. Too late.
Wind speeds doubled within the next half-hour. The mountain wave, forecast days earlier by the weather service, had arrived.
E-911 calls pour in as power lines fall and flames advance
No one saw it yet, but the fire split into two wings that now threatened Gatlinburg from the east and the west. One wing swept northeast toward Park Vista, Turkeys Nest and East Foothills Drive. The other hopped Newfound Gap Road and leapfrogged creeks to race toward an undefended Ski Mountain.
As winds blasted down the mountainside, officials learned at 5:30 p.m. an updated forecast called for no rain for another 12 hours. Gusts grew so fierce some firefighters could barely stand up.
The wind whipped the blaze to a fury and snapped trees and utility poles. Power lines arcing sparks fell into dry grass, leaves and brush. Transformers exploded.
The twin wings of the wildfire folded around the city in a burning embrace.
Firefighters found themselves assailed on all sides. The first report of fire in the city came at 5:45 p.m. from Valley View Lane, more than 4 miles from Mynatt Park.
“There’s a big fire about 300 yards (from me), and it’s getting bigger,” caller Ron Cook told an E-911 dispatcher. “I don’t know where to get to it or how to get to it, but it’s growing, going up the hill.”
Minutes later came calls of brush fires on East Foothills Drive and Oglewood Lane. Neighborhoods went dark.
“A power line just came down,” caller Paula Ogle said. “Hurry, hurry, hurry!”
Calls poured in to the E-911 center – electrical fires on Condo Drive and Davenport Road to the east, Garrett Drive and Norton Creek Road to the west. Authorities estimate more than 20 separate fires broke out in the first 15 minutes of the storm; before the night’s end, more than 50.
“Looking at the final numbers, we had a new structure fire roughly every 18 seconds,” Miller said.
The sparks found endless fuel, from dry grass, fallen leaves and dead trees to tires, fence posts and log homes. Fires that might have been put out easily on a normal night became walls of flame, fanned by winds that acted as a giant bellows. Smaller fires met, merged and raged on.
Outdoor propane tanks exploded. Cars and trucks parked in driveways or on the streets erupted in flames as the gas tanks ignited.
Residents looked out their windows to see advancing flames within yards of their homes.
Emergency crews dodged falling trees to reach burning homes, only to retreat moments later – and sometimes run for their lives. Embers, some described as large as footballs, filled the air with a fiery hail.
“Everything became a blowtorch once the wind hit,” Miller said. “It was like trying to fight a fire in a tornado.”
Firefighters give up on buildings already engulfed in flames
Around 6:10 p.m., fire crested the mountain at Park Vista, spraying the hotel with debris so hot it melted an outdoor canopy. Flames crowned stands of trees inside the city.
By 6:30 p.m., callers reported fires in Chalet Village. By 6:34 p.m., the wildfire jumped containment lines and penetrated Mynatt Park, Turkeys Nest and Davenport Road.
Moments into the fight, crews facing flames as high as 40 feet reported running low on water. Some streets on the hard-hit edges of town had no hydrants.
“We need water,” Gatlinburg fire Lt. Steve Ebb radioed at 6:43 p.m. from East Foothills Drive. “We’ve already had one structure loss, and likely to have more.”
More hydrants ran dry as power failed at city pumping stations.
“We’re losing everything on the left side,” Ebb shouted an hour later.
Firefighters quickly gave up hope of saving buildings already engulfed and resorted to spraying down homes and businesses still intact in an effort to hold their ground. Some abandoned their locations rather than risk being trapped.
Emergency crews separated and lost each other in clouds of smoke that reduced the line of sight to arm’s length or less. Tankers weighing tens of tons struggled to make the climb up steep mountain roads barely wide enough for the average car.
“It looked like Armageddon,” said Miller, the fire chief. “Some of our firefighters told me the thought crossed their minds they would never go home at the end of their shift.”
Communications fail, and frantic drivers can’t find their way out
When the power died, so did most communications. Flames melted fiber-optic cables and knocked out cell towers. Gatlinburg’s police dispatch center, which operated on an internet-based system, lost power off and on until finally crashing before midnight.
Firefighters caught in the howling winds could barely hear the partners next to them, let alone the radios at their sides. Not that it mattered – more than 1,000 radios squawking at once on the 10-channel system made keeping up with traffic nearly impossible.
“There’s so much radio traffic, I don’t know who is going to what,” a dispatcher said.
Cellphone reception dwindled as callers choked the airwaves. Some E-911 calls rang through to dispatchers in Cookeville, more than 150 miles to the west.
Ranks on the front line shrank within the first hour. Just before 6 p.m., a falling tree struck a transformer in the Cobbly Nob subdivision in the Pittman Center community east of Gatlinburg. The sparks set a fire in a stand of trees that spread to a house, then throughout the subdivision and beyond. Pittman Center volunteers broke off to defend home ground.
At 7 p.m., Pigeon Forge firefighters pulled out to fight a half-dozen fires threatening their city, all started by downed power lines.
The winds toppled street signs and mailboxes. Firefighters couldn’t find their way along back roads. Renters couldn’t find their way out. Scenic communities became labyrinthine hells of dead ends, choking smoke and flames waiting around the next corner.
“The whole mountain’s on fire,” one caller said. “People need to know to evacuate. These people are in their homes, and they can’t see it.”
Frantic drivers who’d never set foot in Sevier County before called E-911, begging for directions.
“I don’t know where to go,” a woman lost in Chalet Village sobbed. “There’s fire everywhere. There was a car up the hill, but they were just as lost as us.”
Do we evacuate? No one seemed to know
Evacuation protocols broke down along with everything else.
Gatlinburg police officers – even aided by Sevier County deputies and officers from Sevierville and Pigeon Forge – had no time to reach every house, apartment, trailer, campground, cabin or hotel in the fire’s path. Some shouted evacuation warnings from their patrol car loudspeakers as they sped along back roads.
Chalet Village straddles the western city limits. Gatlinburg officers began notifications at the south end from Ski Mountain Road; deputies began at the north end from Wiley Oakley Drive. The fire outran them.
Nearly two hours into the firestorm, dispatchers still told callers they didn’t know of any mandatory evacuations.
“They’ll come get you when it’s necessary,” a dispatcher said.
One woman on Ski Mountain didn’t know about the fire until she called to order a pizza and the restaurant refused delivery.
At his rental cabin off Ski Mountain Road, Mark Robinson, a retired emergency expert, decided he’d had enough.
The tipping point came when he called the fire department and was told to leave “only if you see fire.” What did that mean? By then it might be too late.
Robinson led a family caravan off the mountain, dodging fallen trees and burning brush through clouds of smoke, and met a firetruck blocking the road as someone shouted something – to evacuate? – mostly drowned out by the wind. He reached the highway and spent hours sitting in traffic surrounded by fire.
“When the wind shifted and the wind speed doubled, they should have known that everyone needed to get out,” Robinson said.
3 times the fire captain asked to sound the sirens
The city had no way to issue a mass warning other than a 20-year-old siren system of four speakers arranged around the central business district, originally installed in case of flooding by the Little Pigeon River that flows through town. Better than nothing, decided Capt. David Puckett, the fire commander on the ground.
He radioed the command center at 7:12 p.m.
“Chief, if the siren system’s working, it probably would not be a bad thing to try to do a manual evacuation using that,” the captain said.
Three times he asked for the sirens.
“If at all possible, we could use the flood warning sirens to assist in evacuation of part of downtown Gatlinburg, it probably would not be a bad idea,” he said at 7:15 p.m.
He almost pleaded the last time.
“Can we set off the sirens?” he asked at 7:50 p.m. “We’ve still got a lot of occupants out here, and we need to be getting them evacuated.”
If anyone answered, the E-911 system didn’t record it.
About to be surrounded, crews dodged trees as they escaped
Inside the national park, A.J. Spoone called his wife in Knoxville. He knew she’d be watching TV at home, wondering whether he was safe.
She’d just told him to be careful – again – and he’d just told her he loved her – again – when the call cut out. He tried to call back. No success. He tried to check Facebook or Twitter for news on the fire. Nothing.
The crew’s radio, programmed to Knox County fire channels only, picked up nothing in the park. As the wind rose, he saw another orange glow skipping through the treetops as the fire circled back toward the visitor center. This time it didn’t pass by.
“We’re talking trees that have been there for 100 years, trees that are probably 100 feet tall,” Spoone said. “Fire usually travels uphill. Now it’s moving downhill toward our position, and it’s moving fast.”
The crew made their stand long enough to realize the fire would probably spare the buildings at this point – but they were about to be surrounded. They’d had no word from incident command for nearly two hours.
If the flames cut them off, no one was coming to save them.
“As firemen, we’re thinking a thousand different things,” Adcox said. “We can’t stop that kind of fire. You can run out (of water) in a minute to a minute and a half. What do you do then?”
They could either retreat deeper into the park or drive through the fire back into town. So they piled into the engine and headed toward the smoke with Spoone at the wheel.
The 2-mile drive back to Gatlinburg turned into a half-hour obstacle course as trees blazed, swayed and crashed to the ground around them. The 45,000-pound truck crawled along the highway with the speedometer’s needle barely above 5 mph.
“All I’m thinking is, I really hope I don’t run this firetruck into the ditch,” Spoone said, “because it’s going to be a really long time before I get any help. We would have been on our own.”
Sirens sound at last, but many don’t hear them
The sirens finally sounded at 8:30 p.m. Miller, the fire chief, had given the order to empty the city 10 minutes earlier.
Miller couldn’t explain why it took nearly an hour and a half to activate the system. The sirens relied on the city’s backup generator, which crashed repeatedly throughout the night.
Assistant Fire Chief Charlie Cole issued the live announcement: “Anyone who can hear this message, evacuate the area immediately.”
That message didn’t carry beyond the edge of downtown. No one on Ski Mountain heard it; no one in Chalet Village, on Baskins Creek Road, or any of a dozen other areas already ablaze.
“We’re assuming everybody in the outlying communities is already gone,” Miller said.
Linda Morrow woke up in her home on Baskins Creek to the sound of breaking glass and the sight of flames at her bedroom door.
“I could see scoops of fire coming in the window,” she said. “The roof was already on fire.”
Miller asked for an alert to be sent to all mobile phones in the area, but that capability lay with the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency in Nashville. TEMA officials wouldn’t send the alert without confirming details. Communications broke down. No alert went out.
The only text alert that reached anyone was a notice sent just after 9 p.m., asking people to stay off their cellphones.
By then, most of the fire’s victims were already dead.
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