Video and audio during the night of November 28, 2016.
Angela Gosnell/News Sentinel
The rain never came in time.
Records released this week show authorities battling the deadly Sevier County wildfires looked to an expected downpour that came too late for salvation as crews struggled in a desperate tug-of-war with skyscraper-sized flames the night of Nov. 28, 2016.
As the blaze approached the city limits, authorities knew the rain wouldn’t arrive for another 12 hours.
“Rain may not be in Gatlinburg until 4 a.m.,” reads a 5:30 p.m. entry on notes kept by staff inside the incident command center.
Authorities didn’t order a citywide evacuation for another three hours — and had no effective way to get the word out at once.
The winds had already arrived. Within minutes, the flames reached neighborhoods on the outskirts of the city; within an hour, wind speeds had doubled, driving flames through communities and toppling utility poles. The resulting blaze killed 14 people, injured nearly 200 others and damaged or destroyed nearly 2,500 homes and businesses.
Notes kept by various members of the command staff over the hours and days that followed open a window into the efforts to fight the fire and the making of critical decisions. The entries, sometimes only a few words apiece, don’t amount to the detailed narrative of a diary. They’re more like verbal snapshots, moments on a timeline that together tell the story of efforts overwhelmed by a fire called Tennessee’s worst in at least a century.
Dashcam video from the Sevierville Police Department reveals an up close look at the Gatlinburg wildfires November 28, 2016.
That timeline stayed secret for months until released this week in response to a public records request. City officials had cited the Juvenile Court case against two Anderson County boys accused of starting the fire as grounds for withholding the records, but prosecutors dropped that case in June.
The timeline begins just before noon on Monday, Nov. 28, 2016, with the assembly of the county’s wildland task force. Fire had reached the Twin Creeks pavilion in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, roughly a mile from the Gatlinburg city limits.
Crews inside the park had spent the past five days keeping watch over a blaze on the remote Chimney Tops Trail amid dust-dry drought conditions. Parts of the area had barely seen rainfall since summer.
At 1:48 p.m., authorities called the American Red Cross to set up a shelter at the city community center. At 2:30 p.m., the task force put out a call for mutual aid.
Crews ultimately arrived from across the state and country for what officials called the largest mutual aid effort in Tennessee history. Most of those crews didn’t arrive until later that night, after winds had reached speeds of nearly 90 mph, whipping the blaze into flames as much as 40 feet high.
At 3:15 p.m., a brush fire popped up on Ski Mountain near Wiley Oakley Drive. Reports placed wind speeds at 40 mph. Heavy smoke hung over the city, sharply reducing visibility.
The fire was on the move. The blaze had already traveled 4 miles to reach the Twin Creeks site. Reports described flames headed downridge from Campsite 21 inside the park, encroaching on the historic Bud Ogle cabin.
National Weather Service forecasts had predicted high winds for days as the wildfires inside the park grew. City and county officials have insisted they thought those winds would bring rain that would finally dampen the dry brush and keep the fires at bay.
By at least 5:30 p.m. that day, authorities knew the rain wasn’t coming — not in time.
By 5:40 p.m., fires had come within a mile of the park headquarters. By 5:45 p.m., another brush fire broke out near the Valley View rental cabins; by 6 p.m., two cabins were reported on fire.
“Fire heading up mountain toward Park Vista,” the notes read. “More resources needed Mynatt Park (on the outskirts of town).”
A desperate battle
Within 10 minutes, calls reported fires inside the city limits. Police officers began knocking on doors to evacuate homes in Mynatt Park. Power lines began falling.
“Fire jump road and heading to structure at Turkey Nest (Road),” the notes read. “Power out Savage Garden. … Mutliple trees and limbs down; breach fire line at Turkey Nest and Davenport (roads); mandatory evacuation. … Call for additional resources at Valley View. … Turkey Nest lost.”
Panicked calls began pouring into dispatchers. Mynatt Park largely escaped damage, but other communities weren’t so lucky. Trees blocked roads as residents tried to flee.
Gatlinburg Fire Chief Greg Miller later estimated at least 20 separate fires broke out within a quarter-hour, overwhelming crews. The steep terrain and narrow, winding roads in some communities didn’t make the fight any easier.
“Tanker can’t make it up Ski Mountain,” reads a note from 7:10 p.m. “Possible structure fire (at) entrance to Ski Mountain Road.”
With every moment, more fires broke out, growing hotter and fiercer.
“Losing everything on left side of E. Foothills Parkway,” reads a note from 7:35 p.m. “Flames greater than 40 feet below Park Vista; structures involved.”
At times the notes take on a desperate tone.
“Wall of fire on Reagan Drive,” reads a note from 7:55 p.m. “Overrun on Wiley Oakley Drive. Retreating. … Fire on two sides. … Request Pigeon Forge to shut down Spur. … Lost apartments and church on Reagan Drive; jumped Reagan Drive and heading up Ski Mountain. Evacuate West Gate. … Kill power to downtown. … Tree down on Winfield Heights Road; can’t evacuate.”
By 8:20 p.m., Miller made the decision to evacuate the city.
“All of downtown to be evacuated,” reads the note.
Officials activated the downtown siren system, originally designed to issue flood warnings, with a live message from Assistant Fire Chief Charlie Cole: “Anyone who can hear this message, evacuate the area immediately.”
Beyond downtown, officers fanned out to knock on doors to spread the word. It’s not clear which communities got the word when or how long the process lasted. Lost power, disrupted cellphone signals and overcrowded radio channels made communication difficult if not impossible.
Power failures cut off communication with the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency in Nashville, which chose not to issue a mobile evacuation alert to cellphones due to a lack of information from the scene. Gatlinburg’s police dispatch center shut down, unable to make or receive calls and unable to forward calls to other agencies. At 10:30 p.m., officials evacuated the city hall, including the fire hall and the emergency operations center directing the fire response.
Recovery and review
Around 3:30 a.m., the rains finally came, although not as heavy as hoped for. Fires continued to smolder for days to come.
From there, the notes turn grim – a story of grid searches, recovery of bodies, reports of the missing, head counts of those injured, trapped or in need.
“Wiley Oakley – wife and kids not heard from since last night,” reads an entry. “Someone screaming for help on Crestview.”
The notes contain no assessments, comments or other reflections on the handling of the fire response. City and county officials have contracted with ABS Consulting, an engineering and risk-modeling firm, to perform an after-action review of the efforts, with that report expected by fall.
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