My Tribute to Gatlinburg Fire

The Summer of 2016 was the hottest, driest I remember during my entire career and I spent some hot summers in Alabama and Georgia for sure.

July 1st 2016 was my first shift at a new station following rotator cuff surgery and the weather was miserably hot and humid. I call them “two tee-shirt shifts” because you sweat through the first one. Many times they were three or four…or more…tee shirt shifts.

If you’re familiar with the 24/48 work schedule of the fire service then you know my second shift back fell on the Fourth of July. I remember laying in my rack about 2100 hours listening to the bottle rockets and fire crackers and roman candles. It sounded like a war zone outside and I had a hard time drifting off, not because of the noise so much, rather because I anticipated what sort of night we might have ahead of us.

“Go to 25 and sleep for your last two years.” They said.

Sure enough, just before midnight I think, the tones dropped for 16, 12, 25, and 14. Multiple calls for a working fire at a Cobb County Parks and Recreation facility that housed offices, earth moving equipment, tractors, bobcats, and thousands of gallons of nitrogen used to spray recreation fields and turn them green. Liquid nitrogen converts to ammonia when it boils incidentally. We found that out when we staged in a low area and climbed out into a cloud of it when we got our assignment.

I call them “gotcha’s”. Unforeseeable circumstances that could kill you.

That was one of, I think it was three, working fires in the Third Battalion that night. We were on two of them and it seems like there was an EMS call as the meat in the sandwich. A long night to say the least.

A few shifts later it dawned on me that we had Sweat Mountain in our territory. It’s not a true mountain but it’s much more than a hill. I’d describe it as a mammoth pile of earth covered with high-dollar homes and topped with millions of dollars in cell phone towers.  It is notorious for burning during weather that isn’t nearly as extreme as 2016. Pre-planning an incident on it, especially after our Fourth, seemed like a good idea.

After finding out what our available resources were from Georgia Forestry and the City of Sandy Springs we hatched a plan to use a couple of pickup trucks stationed at 25 and 14 with leaf blowers on them. The pickups were for rapid access and the leaf blowers to blow a fire break ahead of the flames. Yeah, I know, I wasn’t sure about it at first but Georgia Forestry uses them for ground cover fires. That’s a problem.

Ultimately our request for two leaf blowers was denied as the department didn’t have the money for them. And, had Sweat Mountain actually caught on fire, it wouldn’t have been a ground cover fire. It would have been a forest fire…entire trees burning up the side of the mountain. Something none of us had ever seen. I had told the guys that nobody was getting in front of it if we had an incident. Doing so could have been fatal.

Ultimately, we wouldn’t have to worry about it. Several weeks after formulating our plan thunder storms rolled over us and we could breathe easier.

In Gatlinburg, Tennessee that wasn’t to be the case.

CREDIT: Highlander 411

On November 24, 2016 the first fire was reported on the eastern slope of the Sugarland Mountains in the central Smokies. By December 12 the toll taken by the multiple wildfires that sprung from it would destroy more than 2400 structures and 17,000 acres. 134 would be injured and 14 people would perish.

The National Weather Service had declared this a period of “exceptional drought” and 40mph winds spread sparks from the original fire far and wide. Eventually those winds, generated by the heat from the fires I’m certain, would reach 87mph. Those are category 1 hurricane winds. Those winds would topple trees, which would take out power lines, which would start more fires.

CREDIT: Highlander 411

I wasn’t there so I can only imagine the challenges created by the domino effect of power outages meaning pumping stations, and hydrants, would go down. The 911 Center being overwhelmed with calls and the Emergency Operations Center going down with the power.

This piece is my tribute to the brothers and sisters who endured those days and nights. I can’t imagine. I contacted Gatlinburg’s administration in an effort to speak with them but departments and municipalities don’t talk about incidents like this freely and that is understandable. Say the wrong thing today, or even the right thing in the wrong way, and someone wants to take you to court and “get paid”.

I did, however, bump into a couple of Gatlinburg’s Bravest on the street while I was visiting with the family.

After speaking with them it’s obvious that no ground units were going to do much with this inferno. I’m guessing they made some attempts but, as they told me, they had to run from it on several occasions. The heat from the fire made ‘fireproof” safes not so fireproof. There were literally rolls of coins found completely fused and melted together. The only time I ever saw that was at a Smithsonian exhibit for the Pompei Volcano! You know things are bad when you simply have to establish water supply, raise the stick on your truck, and create a massive fog stream to cover your station and apparatus until the thing blows over.

Gatlinburg, Tennessee after 2016 fires.
CREDIT: Steve Harwood

I think the lesson for firefighters and civilians alike may simply be to realize when you’re sitting on a powder keg and be prepared to take defensive actions or head to safety if the worst case scenario finds you.

And I thank God it wasn’t us trying to get an engine up Sweat Mountain.

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