Tenn. forestry officials to hold news conference on Gatlinburg wildfire response

Survivors of the fire have demanded to know why their communities weren't evacuated sooner

By Matt Lakin
Knoxville News-Sentinel

GATLINBURG, Tenn. — Tennessee forestry officials have called an afternoon news conference on state crews' handling of the deadly Gatlinburg wildfire.

Survivors of the fire have demanded to know why their communities weren't evacuated sooner. Records released by the state Department of Agriculture, which assisted with the initial response to the fire, appear to back up some of those criticisms.

"Don't wait too long," reads one report, labeled "Observations and Suggestions." "There seemed to be a hesitancy to call for assistance. ... Do you think the loss of life would have been reduced if evacuation plans were in place and evacuations were ordered when (the) park declared a monster was heading to Gatlinburg?"

The fire began Nov. 23, 2016, inside the Great Smoky Mountains National Park along the remote Chimney Tops Trail and burned for nearly a week as state and park firefighters mainly tried to contain the blaze rather than put it out. On Nov. 28, the fire escaped the park boundaries and winds that approached 90 mph sent the flames roaring through Gatlinburg and parts of Pigeon Forge and Sevier County.

Burning debris, toppled power lines and exploding fuel tanks sparked more than 30 fires, some of which raged throughout the night into the next day. Fourteen people died, nearly 200 suffered various injuries and nearly 2,400 homes and businesses were damaged or destroyed. Authorities have placed the final recovery estimate at roughly $1 billion.

By the end, a 1.5-acre brush fire had encompassed nearly 18,000 acres.

Investigators later blamed the fire on two Anderson County teenagers playing with matches on the trail amid bone-dry drought conditions. Prosecutors charged the boys with reckless burning in Juvenile Court, but dropped the charges after admitting the evidence couldn't conclusively link the fire they started to the deadly blaze five days later.

Copyright 2017 Knoxville News-Sentinel

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