Officials answer criticisms about fighting Gatlinburg wildfires - WSMV Channel 4

Officials answer criticisms about fighting Gatlinburg wildfires

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Fourteen people were killed in the wildfires last November. (WSMV) Fourteen people were killed in the wildfires last November. (WSMV)
GATLINBURG, TN (WSMV) -

State officials answered criticism about fighting the deadly Gatlinburg wildfires last November.

The wildfires claimed 14 lives and burned some 2,500 structures.

The head of the Tennessee Forestry Division said Wednesday that despite the heartbreaking losses, he felt the way his department responded to the fires could overall be considered a success.

Internal after-action reports pointed out problems with leadership and communications.

News 4 was able to drill down deeper on Wednesday, learning, for example, that firefighters were sent into the field using old-fashioned flip phones.

“I don’t feel very good about it,” said Jere Jeter, the Tennessee state forester. “I visited the fire lines on several occasions, and almost to a person, when I asked about the fire that they were on, what was ahead of them terrain-wise, and they pulled out a phone, it was an iPhone, and they could go to Google Earth and show me. But it was their personal phone.”

The state has now ordered 101 smart phones to replace those flip phones.

Internal reports also said firefighters didn’t have maps in the field.

Jeter said he thought it was better for firefighters to go directly to the fire at the beginning of every shift, rather than attend a daily briefing where they would have been given maps.

The News 4 I-Team asked forestry officials whether the state could have done more to stop the fire before it got so big. The state forester said they don’t fight fires on federal land.

The fire started on the U.S. Park Service’s land.

These are the latest developments in a series of reports by News 4 investigating what happened during the wildfires and the subsequent evacuation of the area.

Back in December, emergency officials acknowledged they never sent a text alerts to residents, warning them to evacuate.

Since then, the I-Team has learned all incoming and outgoing calls from the state's emergency operations center from the first day of the response are gone. Gov. Bill Haslam has said he wants answers about how this happened.

Last week, the I-Team broke the story that the man who was in charge of Sevier County’s emergency management during the wildfires is planning on stepping down. EMA Director John Matthews will be leaving his post Aug.18. Mathews said his departure has absolutely nothing to do with the information that will be released this week.

Earlier this week, an open records request revealed multiple "after-action reports" in which forestry division employees and officials offered observations and suggestions on their wildfire response. In one 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.

Also in those reports, News 4 learned communications problems were the largest safety concern of some in state government in the months following the deadly fires. They cited a lack of communication on the fire line, radio channels not being provided to all crews and problems with some people who didn't understand radio programming.

Stay with News 4 as we learn more from the documents that have just been released.

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