September 09, 2020

The National Park Service can be held financially responsible for failing to warn residents a raging inferno was headed toward Gatlinburg in 2016, a federal judge has ruled.

U.S. District Judge Ronnie Greer swatted down the Park Service’s bid to escape a trial in lawsuits filed by victims and survivors of  those who died in the Gatlinburg wildfires, which claimed 14 lives, damaged or destroyed 2,500 homes and caused $2 billion in damage.

Greer ruled Tuesday the Park Service fell far short of its mandatory duty to warn Great Smoky Mountains National Park visitors and residents in nearby communities in the days and hours leading up to the fatal fires.

“Based on the record, has the United States met its burden and showed that the National Park Service notified or informed Park Neighbors, Park visitors, and local residents of ‘all planned and unplanned fire management activities that have the potential to impact them’?” Greer wrote.

“No,” he concluded.

The fire 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.

Salansky, Greer’s opinion stated, didn’t warn Gatlinburg leaders for five days that the fire – originally an acre in size – was spreading fast and headed for residential neighborhoods surrounding the Smokies.

Even when a warning came, the opinion stated, it was about “smoke,” not fire.

The complete article can be accessed here.