Comin' Down the Mountain
A deadly late-season wildfire sends shock waves through Tennessee
BY ANGELO VERZONI
IT CAN HAPPEN ANYWHERE, ANY TIME. That’s the message fire officials are stressing in the wake of a deadly wildfire that began in Great Smoky Mountains National Park in eastern Tennessee in late November and roared into Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge, and other communities in Sevier County. The fire was still burning in mid-December but was mostly contained.
The wildfire killed 14 people, injured hundreds, torched over 17,000 acres of land, and destroyed or damaged upwards of 2,400 structures in an area that’s a popular destination for nature enthusiasts and country music fans alike; Great Smoky Mountains is the most-visited national park in the United States, and Pigeon Forge is home to country music legend Dolly Parton’s Dollywood. Two juveniles have been charged with aggravated arson in connection with the blaze.
The Sevier County event is further evidence that wildfire isn’t limited to the western U.S. “This is a wildfire that could have just as easily happened in New England,” said Michele Steinberg, who heads NFPA’s Wildfire Division. Tony Watson, fire chief in Pigeon Forge, agreed. “I don’t think anyone ever expected wildfires to be this bad east of the Mississippi,” he told NFPA Journal. “I want everyone in the country to learn from this.”
On the night of November 28, in the hours before the fire spread from the Great Smoky Mountains north into Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge, smoke shrouded the mountains, preventing local firefighters from assessing the size of the threat, Watson said. “Little did we know that we had this huge fire raging above us,” he said. Soon, though, they were dealing with a situation they had never experienced before. At 5 p.m. that night, no structures were threatened by fire; an hour later, nearly two dozen had been damaged. In the end, Gatlinburg sustained the most damage, and Pigeon Forge experienced significant losses.
Watson said he plans to rebuild Pigeon Forge with a focus on protecting structures from wildfires. Watson said he is considering implementing NFPA 1144, Reducing Structure Ignition Hazards from Wildland Fire. “As fire professionals, we owe it to our citizens and the 12 million visitors that come here each year to improve the system,” he said, “and a component of that is codes and code enforcement.”