The National Park Service insists the agency did its best to warn residents and leaders in Gatlinburg of the approach of wildfires that would later claim 14 lives, but the city’s former fire chief isn’t buying it, records show.
In a scathing affidavit filed in U.S. District Court, former Gatlinburg Fire Department Chief Greg Miller takes direct aim at the National Park Service for the wildfires that swept through the city in November 2016, killing 14 people and destroying more than 2,500 homes and businesses.
“(Gatlinburg firefighters and police) were kept in the dark, uninformed by Park officials about the scale and scope of a fire heading toward Gatlinburg at speeds topping 2,000 acres per hour.
“I believe that if the people of Gatlinburg had sufficient warning, lives and property could have been saved,” Miller wrote. “With sufficient warning, we would have had time to cut off electricity and safely evacuate everyone.
“A lack of early notice from the Park was the most critical failure of all,” he continued. “Poor communication by Park staff with Gatlinburg authorities undermined the initial response to the Chimney Tops 2 fire and cost lives … By the time local officials were informed about the true danger, the Chimney Tops 2 fire was unstoppable.”
Park Service wants a legal do-over
The deadliest fire in Tennessee history began on the remote Chimney Tops peaks inside the Great Smoky Mountains National Park on Nov. 23, 2016, during a record-setting drought. Greg Salansky, the park’s fire management officer, decided to try to contain the fire rather than attack it directly despite forecasts of high winds and "critically dry" conditions.
The acre-sized blaze grew over the next five days into an inferno that ultimately killed 14 people, damaged or destroyed more than 2,500 homes and left a trail of losses estimated at roughly $2 billion.
Michael Reed, who lost his wife and two daughters in the Thanksgiving weekend wildfire, and 211 other property owners are suing the Park Service, arguing rangers left the town to burn as high-speed winds sent a wall of fire roaring out of the park.
The U.S. Department of Justice is defending the park service in the case. Last year, the Justice Department tried to convince Senior U.S. District Judge Thomas Phillips to throw out the lawsuits, but he refused. Phillips ruled the Park Service had a mandatory duty to warn residents about the fire threat and can be sued for failing to do so.
Since then, a new judge – Greeneville U.S. District Judge Ronnie Greer – has been tapped to oversee the litigation, and the Justice Department wants a do-over on Phillips’ failure-to-warn ruling.
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