By Lee Roberts
SEVIERVILLE, Tenn. (Jan. 25, 2018) – More than a year after deadly wildfires ravaged Gatlinburg and Sevier County, Tennessee, the state’s Silver Jackets team is grappling with the catastrophe in hopes of saving lives and properties as emergency managers plan for future disasters.
As part of mitigation efforts, Sevier County officials shared firsthand insights about the disaster response effort and lessons learned from the wildfires that devastated areas in Sevier County and the city of Gatlinburg in 2016 with Silver Jackets members at the Sevierville Emergency Management Center Jan. 25.
Silver Jackets is an innovative partnership where local, state and federal agencies facilitate flood risk reduction, coordinate programs, promote cohesive solutions, synchronize plans and policies, and ultimately provide integrated solutions.
Bryan McCarter, vice mayor of Sevierville, Tenn., welcomed members of Tennessee Silver Jackets team and acknowledged the importance of collaborating with the many different agencies and organizations as the community recovers from the aftermath of the wildfires.
“Up until the wildfires we never really truly knew how important it was to be able to collaborate with each other,” McCarter said. “On behalf of the mayor, on behalf of the 100,000 citizens of Sevier County, we appreciate you guys being here. Thank you for your help and assistance through this disaster.”
Nearly 100 mile per hour winds drove the wildfire from Chimney Tops in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park down the mountainside and into Gatlinburg and other parts of Sevier County on Monday, Nov. 28, 2016. The paths of the wildfires destroyed 2,079 residential structures and 66 commercial structures, damaging others, with a grand total of 2,448 structures affected.
Jeff Ownby, Sevier County Planning director in Sevierville, Tenn., said there were more than 40,000 people in Gatlinburg on Sunday, Nov. 27, 2016, the day before the wildfires forced the evacuation of the city. Only about 14,000 people were in the city Monday. Despite the huge reduction in numbers from the Thanksgiving weekend, the death toll sadly reached 14.
A total of 50 counties, 225 agencies, including the Cherokee Tribal Fire Department in North Carolina, 445 apparatus, and 3,535 people responded to fight the fires, conduct search and rescue operations, and assist in the aftermath to help those affected by the wildfires in Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge, Cobbly Knob and Wears Valley. Locally, a total of 11 fire departments, six law enforcement agencies, and an ambulance service and rescue squad operated in Sevier County. Numerous agencies responded following the fires, including the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency, and Tennessee Emergency Management Agency.
“Up to two feet of duff (woodland debris on forest floor) caught fire in drought conditions,” Ownby said. “You had fuel for fire that was two feet thick in some of these areas of the park.”
The spot fires began moving quickly toward Gatlinburg, and strong winds spread the fire to other areas as the embers traveled through the air.
Stacey Whaley, Sevier County Geographical Information Systems director, said the command center had to relocate from the Gatlinburg Fire Department due to the fires. Because of communication issues, first responders were also forced to use hard copy maps and zip code lists while making pen and ink notations during search and rescue operations, she said.
GIS maps were created and used to annotate the information collected during search and rescue, and to assess property damage.
Ownby said moving forward the county is looking to improve communication systems, including between agencies, possibly install effective directional signage, and to find ways of expanding its notification alert systems, including flood alerts.
Lacey Thomason, professional engineer and Silver Jackets program manager with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Nashville District, provided information about Corps of Engineers’ authority to plan, design, and conduct small projects for flood risk management, emergency streambank and shoreline protection, and the various programs available to Sevier County and local communities to address issues such as floodplain management.
Following the briefings, the Silver Jackets team toured the areas in and around Gatlinburg where the fires moved through the area. They stopped at the Gatlinburg Bypass Overlook and were able to ask questions about the event and recovery effort.
Chris Cunningham, Silver Jackets coordinator for the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency, said there were 70 different wildfires burning across the state of Tennessee the month prior to the tragic events in the Gatlinburg area. He said the tour of the area was beneficial to him in his planning duties at TEMA.
“It was enlightening to see some of the actual things that I had seen pictures and videos of, and knew the stats on, to see it in person.”
Agencies represented at the Silver Jackets meeting included the Corps of Engineers, TEMA, Tennessee Valley Authority, National Resources Conservation Service, National Weather Service, FEMA, Tennessee National Flood Insurance Program, city of Nashville, city of Knoxville, Knox County, city of Sevierville, and Hamilton County.