The National Park Service can be held financially responsible for failing to warn residents a raging inferno was headed toward Gatlinburg in 2016, a federal judge has ruled.
U.S. District Judge Ronnie Greer swatted down the NPS bid to escape a trial in lawsuits filed by victims and survivors of those who died in the Gatlinburg wildfires, which claimed 14 lives, damaged or destroyed 2,500 homes and caused $2 billion in damage.
Greer ruled Tuesday the NPS fell far short of its mandatory duty to warn Great Smoky Mountains National Park visitors and residents in nearby communities in the days and hours leading up to the fatal fires.
“Based on the record, has the United States met its burden and showed that the National Park Service notified or informed Park Neighbors, Park visitors, and local residents of ‘all planned and unplanned fire management activities that have the potential to impact them’?” Greer wrote.
“No,” he concluded.
The fire began on the remote Chimney Tops peaks inside the Great Smoky Mountains National Park on Nov. 23, 2016, during a record-setting drought. Greg Salansky, the park’s fire management officer, decided to try to contain the fire rather than attack it directly despite forecasts of high winds and “critically dry” conditions.
Salansky, Greer’s opinion stated, didn’t warn Gatlinburg leaders for five days that the fire – originally an acre in size – was spreading fast and headed for residential neighborhoods surrounding the Smokies.
Even when a warning came, the opinion stated, it was about “smoke,” not fire.
Michael Reed, who lost his wife and two daughters in the Thanksgiving weekend wildfire that swept through Gatlinburg, and 211 other property owners are suing the NPS, arguing rangers left the town to burn as high-speed winds sent a wall of fire roaring out of the national park.
Greer’s ruling paves the way for a jury trial in the case, although the Justice Department likely will seek an appeal.
A Knox News investigation showed Salansky opted not to attack the fire directly, didn’t immediately order containment lines to be dug and waited four days to order water drops by airplane and helicopter. Most of the fire crew’s staff was on vacation due to the holiday. No one called them in.
Local officials learned about the fire on Nov. 28, 2016, when a Gatlinburg fire captain called Salansky about the clouds of smoke hanging over town — and didn’t learn until 12:30 p.m. the fire was headed their way.
When winds topped 60 mph around 6 p.m., the fire wrapped around the city on both sides. Most of the fire’s victims, including Reed’s wife and daughters, died on the western side of town, where police and firefighters delivering evacuation notices failed to reach everyone in time.
Under governmental immunity law, citizens don’t have the legal right to challenge “discretionary” decisions by government agencies even if those decisions are bad and lead to death and destruction.
But Senior U.S. District Judge Thomas Phillips last year ruled the Park Service’s duty to warn citizens about fires in the Smokies was mandatory. That ruling stripped the agency of legal immunity.
Press releases, web posts not enough
The Justice Department fought back, though.
At a hearing earlier this year, the Justice Department argued the NPS issued press releases, an “E-blast” mass email, and posts on social media and websites to update residents about the Chimney Tops fire.
But Greer ruled the notices fell short of satisfying the NPS’ own mandate on warning citizens about fire threats in the Smokies.
“The information posted on the websites gave notice to the visitors of the Park’s website,” Greer wrote. “The Instagram posts may have given notice to the people who follow the Park on Instagram, etc.
“But posting information on websites and social media accounts is not the same as notifying ‘Park neighbors, Park visitors and local residents ... of all planned and unplanned fire management activities that have the potential to impact them,’” Greer wrote.
Thanks to our friends at the Knoxville (TN) News Sentinel for allowing us to share this story with our readers. The original story can be found at https://www.knoxnews.com/story/news/crime/2020/09/09/national-park-service-failed-warn-gatlinburg-wildfires-judge-rules/5752222002/
Email Jamie Satterfield at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow her on Twitter @jamiescoop.