Report: Without change, Smokies wildfire ‘will be repeated’

A U.S. National Park Service committee’s review of the November, 2016, Great Smoky Mountains National Park wildfire found no outright wrongdoing by park officials, but uncovered a culture of lax oversight, inexperienced management and tunnel vision that made its spread possible, reports the News Sentinel.

The fire swept through 10,000 acres of the park and 6,000 adjoining acres of private property, much of it in Gatlinburg, leaving 14 people dead and causing more than $500 million in property damage.

The 115-page report (pdf HERE) chronicles development of the fire at length and blames unusual natural phenomena — a long-term drought and sudden high winds—with creating the conditions that tied into an understandable lack of preparation for dealing with what began as a minor blaze.

It suggests that expanding “wildland-urban interface” combined with climate change leave a window open for a repeat in the future without changes in management practices, such as controlled burning in some areas of the park, and urges better emergency planning – starting with coordinated planning and better radio communications between all the federal, state and local agencies involved.

“These same conditions are likely to align again,” the review team wrote. Without fundamental changes, “history will be repeated.”

… (Greg) Salansky, a former wildland firefighter, had served as the park’s fire management officer for just eight months. Because of the Thanksgiving holiday, the park was short-staffed, leaving Salansky to fill not just his job covering the whole park but the jobs of overall incident commander and on-scene duty officer for efforts to contain the fire – a violation of National Park Service policy and of generally accepted best practices for fighting wildfires.

The only officials reviewing Salansky’s decisions were park management, all of whom had even less experience dealing with fires.

Salansky “possesses all required training and qualifications … however, little guidance or mentorship was provided to help manage the increasing level of complexities,” the review team noted. “These complexities include, but are not limited to, managing multiple park fire programs … managing multiple fire programs with a declining workforce, and the park’s visitor growth. … Staff fatigue and having key leadership dividing their attention across multiple positions limit opportunity for reflection.”

…Reviewers concluded Salansky, distracted by the duties of his other jobs and with no one else to act as a check or balance, failed to think beyond the limits of his personal experience. On Friday, Nov. 25, he wrote and approved an analysis of the Chimney Tops fire as “small with low potential to make a significant run.”

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Former Knoxville News Sentinel capitol bureau chief Tom Humphrey writes about Tennessee politics, government, and legislative news.
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