Internal documents criticize handling of Gatlinburg wildfires - WSMV News 4

Internal documents criticize handling of Gatlinburg wildfires

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Fourteen people were killed in the fires. (WSMV) Fourteen people were killed in the fires. (WSMV)
The documents include newly released photos of the aftermath. (WSMV) The documents include newly released photos of the aftermath. (WSMV)

The News 4 I-Team has uncovered internal state records that criticize the response from the state Forestry Division following the deadly wildfires in Gatlinburg.

One employee even questions whether the loss of life would have been reduced if evacuations were in place as the flames descended upon Gatlinburg.

"Do you think the loss of life would have been reduced if evacuation plans were in place and evacuations were ordered when Park declared a monster was heading to Gatlinburg?" wrote one employee in an assessment.

The I-Team is still trying to verify if that employee was referring to a forestry or local evacuation plan.

The firestorm claimed the lives of 14 people. Officials say more than 130 individuals were also injured as a result of the wildfires that ravaged Gatlinburg and the surrounding areas. In December, emergency officials acknowledged they never sent a text alerts to residents, warning them to evacuate.

An open records request revealed multiple "after-action reports" in which forestry division employees and officials offered observations and suggestions on their wildfire response.

Dave Walters, head of the forestry division's policy, planning and budget unit, submitted a multi-page report on topics ranging from planning to operations.

"By far the largest safety concern was the lack of communications on the fire line," the assessment read.

Later in the same report, it was noted that staffers had a "lack of fire experience...especially in key positions." Another criticism underscored "a lack of maps" had caused a delay in fire suppression.

Based on last year's response, leaders also made recommendations for future "complex" incidents.

Those suggestions included hiring staff earlier in the season to ensure training has been completed. Memos also stated employees should not work more than 21 days straight.

"One or more employee claimed to work several weeks without a day off; and it showed," the document read.

Chain of command issues also appeared to be a reoccurring theme.

"Leadership was uncertain at times. When there was a mix of local and non-local crews, leadership was nonexistent due to no one wanting to take charge or individuals feeling inexperienced," an employee noted in the same memo.

In other documents, forestry officials also took the opportunity to submit their impressions of the response.

"Immense liability and responsibility put on an untrained person," wrote incident commander Heather Slayton.

Slayton went on to note there were perhaps "too many chiefs and not enough Indians."

"Check EGOS!!!!" Slayton wrote in her comments section.

The Forestry Division falls under the Tennessee Department of Agriculture.

Spokeswoman Corinne Gould issued this statement: 

As you know, the 2016 fire season lasted several months, and was an unprecedented year for fires. Our record shows that TDA has a strong and consistent history of successful wild land firefighting and has proven capable of protecting life and property, while coordinating with multiple agencies in multiple locations and dangerous conditions statewide.....We are continuously working to improve. This year is no different than any other in that respect. We take our responsibilities to serve the citizens of Tennessee very seriously and will continue to seek the best ways to do that. Every fire fought adds to our knowledge base and ability to improve.

Click here to read observations and suggestions following the wildfires.

Click here to read an after-action report.

Click here to read observations from one man’s deployment.

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