NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Drought-stricken Great Smoky Mountains National Park was not prepared for last year’s catastrophic fire, and climate change is among the factors that will likely make conditions that led to the disaster the “new normal” for the park, according to a federal review released Thursday.
At a news conference, National Park Service officials said it was impossible to predict that hurricane-force winds around 90 mph would blow the fire from the remote, rough terrain of the park into the Gatlinburg area in November. The fire merged with others, contributing to 14 deaths and up to $2 billion of damage.
“No one expected a tragedy of this scale 5.5 miles from the city to occur,” U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke said via webcam at the news conference.
No one acted negligently as they tried to quell a fire that they couldn’t have imagined, the review team said, but problems ensued when park fire staffers couldn’t communicate with some other agencies’ first responders because of serious radio limitations.
In response, the park will undergo a $2.5 million radio communications system upgrade, seven neighboring fire departments will receive reportable radios and protective equipment, and an emphasis will be placed on clearing out dead and dying trees, among other changes.
The report calls on park leaders to challenge long-held assumptions and practices about managing fires. The same drastic circumstances — drought, heavy wind and fire — will likely align again and allow a large-scale wildfire to leave the park and burn into residential areas, it says.
“Changes in wildland fuels resulting from past land management practices, climatic change, and decades of fire suppression have all conspired to create a fire exclusion conundrum that can no longer be ignored,” the report states.
Joe Stutler, a senior advisor for Deschutes County, Oregon who led the review team, pointed to last year’s wildfire activity amid drought across the Southeast.
“I’m certainly not going to engage in a debate on change or climate change, but I can tell you that what we’re seeing, we’re hearing the phrase, ‘I’ve never seen that before in my entire career.'” Stutler said. “So, those are the changes that we’re talking about.”
On Thursday, Zinke said it was appropriate that fire crews decided not to attack the fire in the park, and instead try to contain it.
Authorities said two juveniles started the fire on Nov. 23 and it left the park on Nov. 28. Local prosecutors dropped charges against the boys in June because other fires from downed power lines contributed to the inferno in Gatlinburg. Federal prosecutors have said they’re reviewing the case.
The park had not requested sufficient extra resources for the fire season, and only asked for additional hours for existing staff, the report said. Its own crews were fatigued because they had been steadily fighting fires since July amid a lively fire season, it says.
The National Weather Service had not issued “Red Flag Warnings” for extreme burn conditions because the weather didn’t fit the criteria in the area, the review team said.
The set of circumstances presented a perfect storm that ravaged Gatlinburg, leaving people without cell phone signals trapped in their cars, buildings and on foot while trees and power lines blocked roadways and walls of flames closed in.
“The whole mountain is on fire up here,” one woman said in a 911 call released in a public records request. “We’re trying to make our way down, but I think we’re all going to burn up quick. Can you do something?”