Last week the U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke issued an independent review of the Chimney Tops 2 Fire that burned 11,410 acres in Great Smoky Mountains National Park in November 2016 and merged with other area fires, which caused 14 deaths and millions of dollars in damage in the Gatlinburg area.
The report outlines the origins and growth of the Chimney Tops 2 Fire within the boundaries of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It identifies a number of factors that contributed to the growth of the fire over the course of six days within the park before the fire moved beyond the park boundaries to merge with other fires and become the Sevier County fires. The report also provides a summary of findings and recommendations regarding the park’s fire management planning and response capabilities.
“While visiting the Great Smoky Mountains National Park last week, I met with park staff, local officials, and members of the Gatlinburg community that were impacted by this devastating fire,” said Secretary Zinke. “Based on those meetings and my review of the report, I am satisfied that it accurately describes the unusual and unexpected conditions that resulted in the largest fire in the park’s history and a series of other fires around the park, which caused so much devastation to the community of Gatlinburg. I am committed to leading efforts to ensure that the National Park Service, along with other land management agencies, state and local governments take the lessons learned from this horrific fire and make changes that will help us prevent tragedies like this in the future” This report will be combined with other reports and investigations to ensure that every action can be taken to prevent similar fires in the future. Among next steps, the National Park Service is working to:
* Upgrade Great Smoky Mountain National Park’s radio communications system to ensure interoperable communication between the park’s emergency responders and local cooperators, with capacity to accommodate multiple simultaneous incidents. This is a $2.5 million initiative through a public-private partnership with the Friends of the Smokies and the National Park Service.
* Issue seven neighboring fire departments portable radios and personal protective equipment this fall with funding through the Department of the Interior Rural Fire Readiness program.
* Implement the goals of the National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy, which prioritizes healthy and resilient landscapes, fire adapted communities, and safe and effective response. This includes efforts to actively manage vegetation and fuels effectively, removing dead and dying trees.
* Assemble a Management Action Team of fire and leadership experts to take immediate action at the local, regional and national levels based on the findings and recommendations from the report.
* Participate in a review of the broader Sevier County fires with local, state and other federal officials.
“We see this report on the Chimney Tops 2 Fire as the first steps of a journey that will help us institutionalize the lessons learned from the tragic Sevier County fires,” said National Park Service Fire and Aviation Division Chief Bill Kaage. “The review report is only the beginning of a longer process.”
The chief for the National Park Service (NPS) Division of Fire and Aviation in Boise, ID delegated the review of the Chimney Tops 2 fire to an independent team of seven interagency fire experts in February 2017. The team was charged with identifying the facts leading up to and during the Chimney Tops 2 Fire within the boundaries of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, as well as making recommendations on planning, operational, or managerial issues which can be addressed locally, regionally, and/or nationally to reduce the chances of a similar incident in the future.
Between February and April 2017, the review team conducted research and interviews of personnel and leadership involved in the Chimney Tops 2 Fire. They used materials and information gathered during the fire cause investigation, their own interviews of involved NPS staff and cooperators, as well as fire weather data and other information to create a narrative of the event from the time it ignited on November 23, 2016 through the time when it left the park at 6:08 p.m. on November 28, 2016.
Joe Stutler, a senior advisor for Deschutes County, Oregon, led the interagency fire review team and thanked the park, local community leaders, and fire response personnel for their support during the fire review process.
“We appreciate everyone who assisted with the review effort and helped us get a complete picture of the firestorm that impacted Sevier County last November,” Stutler said.
The review report is located on the Wildland Fire Lessons Learned site at the Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center website.