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This conversation was originally heard on the Feb. 4, 2024 episode of Inside Appalachia.
In November 2016, a wildfire escaped from the Great Smoky Mountains National Park into the nearby tourist towns of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. At least 14 people were killed and 190 injured, and more than 14,000 residents and tourists had to be evacuated out of the area.
Now, a newspaper investigation has revealed that National Park Service officials underestimated the severity of the wildfire, and were slow to alert Tennessee officials about the danger.
The transcript below has been edited for clarity and length. For more, listen to the full interview on Inside Appalachia or via the streaming widget above.
Adams: Can you refresh our memory on that 2016 fire and what happened with it?
Whetstone: You have to remember, in 2016 there was an exceptional drought, one of the worst droughts in state [Tennessee] history. The region was in a pretty severe drought in the Carolinas, Virginia and Georgia. So it was peak fire season, more so than normal. This wildfire just happened to be in a perfect storm of sorts.
It began Wednesday, the day before Thanksgiving, in November 2016. The park was severely understaffed because of the holiday. You had people who were new to management positions that didn’t want to tell people not to take off for the holiday. The fire was up high in Chimney Tops, which is a weird peak in the Smokies. I think when most people think of the Smokies, they think of rolling hills and tree-topped mountains. The Chimney Tops is pretty much the only peak in the park that’s rocky. The fire started way up top. It was in a spot that really couldn’t be taken care of or could be fought. So they let it burn out. That was the plan — except that it didn’t, obviously.
The day the fire blew out of the park into Gatlinburg had a number of things that went wrong outside of just park officials not letting Gatlinburg know what was going on. You have what’s called a “mountain wave,” which some people may be familiar with. It’s certain times of year, typically in late November in the Smokies, where you have phenomenal winds that will blow through. We had wind gusts well over 85, 90 mph. That Monday, it just blew the fire, that had been largely contained to the park, well outside of the park and through Gatlinburg. Other branches of it spotted fires up through Pigeon Forge, outside of Dollywood.
At the end of the day, 14 people died. Hundreds were injured and something like 2,000 buildings were destroyed.
Adams: You’ve been looking into the National Park Service’s initial response to this fire. What gave you the idea for this investigation, and how did you go about doing it?
Whetstone: I’d been writing about the wildfire. I was there the night that it happened, at least in Pigeon Forge. You couldn’t get into Gatlinburg. Emergency crews wouldn’t let you get into Gatlinburg, which was probably a good call. So, it’s something that I’ve been working on and off for seven years. In the last two years, I really kind of spearheaded our reporting on that and continue to follow a federal lawsuit against the park service the victims of the fire filed. I got a new set of documents — 1,500 pages of federal records that we hadn’t previously seen — from a source, and those records really spawned the effort.
Adams: Tell me a little bit about what y’all found in all those documents.
Whetstone: There’s really three findings. The first is, early on, the date that the fire broke out of the park, park officials were saying on the radio that the fire could leave the park and go as far as Ski Mountain. If you’re familiar with Gatlinburg, Ski Mountain is on the far end of town near the park, but it kind of winds its way around the city. It’s where a lot of residents live. It would have been another three or four hours before park officials let the city know that the fire could leave the park, but they never said “Ski Mountain.” City officials thought it would be in one place and were never given the heads-up that it could go to an entirely different place, and that’s where most of the deaths occurred, unfortunately.
The second story was, the man in charge of the fire — the fire management officer, the guy who’s in charge of the response, and in charge of how the fire is handled — his name is Greg Salansky. Greg texted another park official on Saturday, saying basically that the park should be prepared because “Monday might get exciting.” And Monday, of course, was not just exciting, it was awful and ended up being a lot worse than Greg was expecting. So it calls into question some of the decisions. The park service never had anyone watch the fire overnight, any of the five nights it burned, which experts in wildland fires will tell you is a no-no. You always want to have someone watching the fire just in case it blows out of the park, or grows, or just to get an idea of what’s going on.
Then lastly, we had obtained an audio recording of park superintendent Cassius Cash receiving a call early Sunday morning at 3 a.m. It’s a weird call because he answers the phone, and it’s a police dispatch telling him that the fire had grown. And Cash assumed that it hadn’t. But he didn’t check with anyone, he just downplayed it and said, it’s not a big deal to worry about it, it’s a small thing. But if you’re in charge of the park, and a fire is reported to have grown tenfold at least over a couple of hours, it’s something that you need to check out. That’s what wildland fire experts told me. It’s something that the park officials were not ready to do. They were not used to these types of events, not used to this type of fire certainly. And just one mistake after another unfortunately, led to a pretty awful, awful week.