Tuesday, January 03, 2017

Park officials to blame for devastating Gatlinburg fire, say former U.S. Forest Service firefighters

Lisa McGill Reagan looks for personal belongings she
could save in the rubble of her home in Gatlinburg.
(Knoxville News-Sentinel photo by Brianna Paciorka)
Former U.S. Forest Service firefighters say National Park Service officials could have stopped wildfires that devastated homes and businesses near the Great Smoky Mountains National Park Nov, 28, Don Jacobs reports for the Knoxville News-Sentinel. Bill Gabbert, a former Forest Service firefighter who writes an online blog about wildland fires and aviation resources to battle them, said the Park Service "should have doused a 1.5-acre fire . . . days before high winds created a mega-fire that swept into Gatlinburg."

Gabbert and four other former Forest Service firefighters said "officials in the national park should have summoned every resource available when alerted Nov. 26 of the expected high winds," Jacobs reports. Gabbert added, “I’ve written for years that the best way to keep fires from becoming mega-fires is to attack them with overwhelming force, both on the ground and from the air. People say that is very expensive, but it is not as expensive as losing 14 lives and $500 million in lost structures.”

The former Forest Service firefighters "agreed park officials didn’t pay attention to the severe drought, low humidity that provided a tinderbox for flames, available options to quell the slow-moving fire before winds made the flames uncontrollable, and alarming weather forecasts," Jacobs reports. Clay Jordan, deputy superintendent of the park, "said all the options outlined by park fire management officer Greg Salansky 'made sense to me,'" Jacobs reports. Jordan told him, “There was no way the fire could have been extinguished before the winds came."

Jacobs also reports, "No one turned the first spade of dirt for several days to contain the flames" after the fire was discovered Nov. 23; "In an apparent breach of policy, no one monitored the Chimney Tops 2 fire when high winds swept flames to other ridges a mile away; and the first direct attack on the fire didn’t occur until it had grown to 35 acres four days after it was discovered, and that suppression started late Nov. 27, limiting the number of airborne water dumps on the flames."
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