TeamBUSAR.org…

SHIRT

Three years ago I was at a crux. I had resigned from my backcountry law enforcement ranger position, found out we were having a baby, and started planning our move to North Carolina. I remember reading a text from my MMA coach that he sent out to the team about training and priorities. I was in Florida on vacation, and he was right. I realized that I could no longer dedicate the time and energy to that sport, with new priorities entering my life. I left the gym, leaving part of me behind.

The same was true of my LE Ranger position. While I will never regret my decision to leave, there was a part of my soul that missed the most rewarding facet of that job…

Search and rescue.

I have been extremely fortunate to have a career filled with adventure, but there has only been one time in all those years that emotion has swept over me so strongly, I had to walk away.

Ten years ago, I was on a search for two off-trail hikers on the Spruce Flats Falls manway. I was just getting into the law enforcement division, but got teamed up with “Rambo” Ricky Varner who knew the area like the back of his hand. We located the couple, who were forced to spend the night out, and walked them out to Tremont.

There, patiently waiting, was their family, and what ensued was one of the most tender reunions I have witnessed. They don’t always end that way, but reuniting a family with their missing loved one will move the most calloused soul.

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Photo credit: http://www.thegreatsmokies.net/spruce-flats-falls/

And so two years ago, fueled by a desire to be pushed by a group of hard-core guys, a penchant for the misery of off-trail rescues, and the aspiration to help others, I started recruiting a band of outdoor misfits to form an elite search and rescue team. Our mission would be simple. Prepare for the toughest missions the Smokies can offer..

  • Off-trail rescues
  • Extended carryouts
  • Winter rescues
  • Missing aircraft
  • Technical and swiftwater rescue

With the promise of bad weather, long hours, no pay, and dangerous work, they started to trickle in one by one. First an adventurer racer, then a paddler and climber, then a helicopter pilot, a doctor, a flight medic, a Special Forces veteran, a neuroscientist, another wildlife ranger, and the list went on.

Original flyer:

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As diverse as the crew was, they all had in common the desire to help others in need and the ability to push themselves physically and mentally to build a professional team.

Every week for two years, in every weather condition, we have met at a local park to workout together, carrying our SAR packs and kettlebells, pushing the levels of fitness higher and suffering through grueling fitness standards. Every month, the team has assembled for some form of training, be it technical, swiftwater, tracking, land navigation, wilderness medical, rescue swimming, working with K-9 teams, or just a tough off-trail scramble.

Leaving the comfort of our homes and families to respond to missions, we have carried out patients on the icy Appalachian trail. Rigged up ropes to haul the injured hikers up to safety. Searched for a downed plane during hypothermia inducing weather. Assisted with joint technical rescue training. Responded to many calls only to get cancelled en route when the victim walked out. Searched the dark trails for a missing hikers. Assisted in the body recoveries of recent fatalities. And taken vacation days and cancelled personal plans to respond when called.

The team did all this, and more, to be an asset to the Search and Rescue operations of Great Smoky Mountain National Park and help those in need. The park is working constantly to overcome staffing and budget challenges. We hope to help them by pre-deploying on high volume weekends and holidays, which will reduce our response time and allow us to assist with the P-SAR (Preventative Search & Rescue) program.

The BUSAR Team is the finest group of professionals I have ever worked with. They are my friends, my mentors, my teammates, and they have helped fill that tribal void in my life. I am proud of all they have accomplished and all that they will going forward.

So today I am announcing our team website, Team BUSAR, and the exciting news that we got our non-profit status. For the last two years, except for three donors, we have paid for everything out of our own pocket. Our gear, our training, gas, meals, etc. We have done all that because we desire to help.

Now we are asking for your help.

With over 11 million visitors to the Smokies, there is a good chance that you or someone you care about may need help out there at sometime, so please consider helping us by the following:

  1.  Jump onto our site and read the bios of this dedicated group of professionals
  2. Push this message, and our website, teambusar.org out on social media, hiking forums, email groups, and word of mouth. The more the better, as just that action may find us the help we need.
  3. Like us on Facebook, TeamBUSAR Facebook, and invite all your friends to do the same
  4. BUSAR is a 501(c)3 non-profit, so please consider donating if you are able –  Donate to BUSAR
  5. If you know someone who is looking for a charitable tax deduction, please send them our way.  I am more than happy to chat by phone or meet up to explain our vision. Our team not only has a worthwhile mission, but with half of the team being veterans, it makes a difference in their lives as well. Dusken’s experience
  6. If you are aware of any grants or foundations that are inline with our mission, please email us at  – busarfoundation@gmail.com

 

To date, the BUSAR project has been one of the most fulfilling chapters in my life. This team would have never started without the hard work and dedication of those on the team and their support of their families. To all those involved, current and former, I give thanks.

Thanks to Chief Ranger Steve Kloster, who has been advising me since it’s formation, along with Jared St. Clair, TN District Ranger, who took over the SAR Coordinator role. Thanks also goes out to all the members of the Smokies Tech Rescue team, Kevin Moses and the cadre of B-TRTE for tech training, Chuck Hester of BLRI, and Brian Osgood and the BCRS crew for loaning us equipment for swiftwater training.

What was birthed two years ago, is now starting to stand on its own two feet. The feet wear muddy boots, the bodies are now hardened by countless workouts and training missions, and the spirit stands by waiting for the call and ready to help. The path ahead of us is clear, we are prepared, and ready for the journey. We invite all of you to join us in this mission to help others, by helping us…

BUSAR!!

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BPO’s “Reality of Survival” at REI Brentwood – June 21, 2017…

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I will be speaking at REI Brentwood at 7pm on Wednesday, June 21, 2017. The discussion will focus on mentally preparing yourself for wilderness emergencies,  training, and gear that could save your life.

Event details REI “Reality of Survival”

There is no cost, so come join us if you are in the area.

Move, Jump, Climb, and Lift Like Tarzan…

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Photo: Breaking Muscle article linked below

During a recent search and rescue operation, I was launched off the trail, landing upside down 10 feet down the mountainside. I was grateful to be uninjured, grateful for years of falling in judo, and grateful I had started a new mobility routine several weeks ago.

I had heard about MovNat last year from one of their instructors, but it was only recently that I started to explore it as I was looking to add some mobility work into my fitness routine. The founder, Erwan Le Corre, describes the system in this article –     MovNat Explained

The practicality of the system to my line of work is unquestionable and we have already incorporated some of the exercises into our weekly SAR team workouts.

Here is a video from the Youtube channel : MovNat Founder

After watching all 195 videos and reading everything I can find online, I was happy to find out that there will be a workshop on Saturday June 24 in Knoxville at Irontribe Gym. Needless to say, I am excited about training with them on that day and wanted to spread the word about their program.

MovNat Elements Workshop

BUSAR Update – April…

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Training – 

Virginia SAR Conference –

The above picture was taken just moments after a glorious victory of Team Old School (my team) over Team Whippersnapper (Greg’s team). I am trying my best to teach the boy some humility, so let the record show that this is the second time I have soundly defeated him in a footrace to the control point when we arrived in the area at the same time!

In a welcome turn of events, I got to spend the first two days of the conference as a student in Rob Spieden’s land nav class. Having a break from teaching and getting to nerd out on land nav was great and Rob humors all my nerd session questions as I plan out BUSAR’s land navigation test.

The next two days for me were spent in various classes such as Advances in SAR, Training Officer Roundtable, and Supplementing USGS Maps.

Greg and I taught a SAR-Fit classe – “Creating a culture of functional fitness for SAR teams” and led morning and afternoon workout sessions throughout the 4 day conference.

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On Sunday morning, I taught an emergency firestarting classe. Team “Best in Class”, headed up by the director of training for VDEM, won the firestarting challenge after a solid weekend of rain.

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Networking, classes, vendors, new friends, old friends, twice a day workouts… what’s not to love about the VA SARCO. Rob Blevins, one of the coordinators and vendors, has a great deal of P-MAG’s as well,  for all the shooters that read this site. Check him out at A&L Outfitters

BTRT-E – The following AAR is from Doc Cobra. He, along with Morgan, Grieco,  and Benjamin attended the course in New River Gorge.

AAR: National Park Service Basic Technical Rescue Training – East (BTRT-E) 

New River Gorge National River, West Virginia April 24-28, 2017

East Tennessee was well represented at the 22nd annual BTRTE in New River Gorge, West Virginia. Attendees included NPS Rangers from the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (Jim Cannon, Greg Grieco, Joe Kahrnoff, Ryan Rhor), Obed Wild and Scenic River (Little Bret Painter, Ricky Ryan), Big South Fork NRRA (Lauren Kopplin) and BUSAR members (NPS VIP) Doc Bill Campbell, Jason Benjamin, Andrew Morgan and Ken Miller.

Stormy, cool weather gave way to warmer days and nights with light rain, and eventually to sunshine for our concluding scenarios and group photo. Everyone camped at the Burnwood Ranger Station. The venues were the cliffs at Burnwood, the Fayetteville Volunteer Fire Department and the Endless Wall.

Instructors arrived on Saturday to begin final planning and rigging.  Students checked in Sunday.

Day 1                                                                                                                                                                                                         We were welcomed at the Canyon Rim Visitors Center by IC Kevin Moses who read a welcome message from Andrew R. Hower, Deputy Chief, Emergency Services Branch, Law Enforcement, Security, and Emergency Services. The first day’s training was dedicated to basic skills and began with a gear lecture by veteran climbing guide, Instructor Andy Nichols.  Andy, a climber since age 12, covered the details and safety factors of hardware and software used in rope rescue with a historical perspective.  We were then split among 6 teams of 5-6 students and introduced to our Instructors who reviewed the assigned knots and ensured that each student could tie them properly.  We practiced building anchor systems: wrap 3 pull 2 (webbing), high-strength tie off (rescue rope) and load sharing (cordelette). The Instructor to student ratio is an incredible 1:2.

We hiked to the cliffs for the afternoon session on basic rappelling.  Our Instructors demonstrated and explained the anchors and belay systems which they had pre-rigged, then educated us in proper edge safety, protection, and rigging procedures. Each student was required to first rappel with a Recue 8, then allowed multiple repetitions with the descending devices of their choosing. Available devices included carabiners for Munter (Italian) Hitch, ATC, Grigri, brake bar rack and Scarab. Our belaying skills were honed as well.

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At the bottom of the cliff we worked on our Rapid Ascent Descent System (RADS) technique.

The rain held off while we concluded a full ten-hour day of training, bagged the ropes and hiked back up to the Gazebo.

Day 2                                                                                                                                                          We traveled to the nearby Fayetteville Volunteer Fire Department for our second day of basic skills training. There our instructors had rigged many ropes for multiple skills stations on Sunday before our arrival. The stations included:

1. Ascend, changeover, descend, changeover, down climb using Prusiks

2. Ascend, changeover, descend, changeover, down climb using the Texas or Frog System

3. Ascend, changeover, descend, changeover, down climb using Rapid Ascent Descent System (RADS)

4. Knot passes, going up and down, using students preferred method

5. Clearing a jammed ascender using students preferred method

6. Line changes, going up and down, using students preferred method

7. Outstanding litter rigging, patient packaging and care, litter attendant skills primer by Doc Campbell

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During our lunch break, IC Kevin Moses taught us everything there is to know about Task Books (except for a sure fire way to actually get one signed off). I did learn from off-line discussions that the emphasis placed upon them varies among National Parks.

We clocked about 8 hours of intensive skills instruction and practice with a multitude of devices and techniques, greatly expanding our knowledge and enhancing our “tool boxes”.  After supper and the Instructors meeting, Clark Howell and Marco Yurachek (undoubtedly THE toughest man alive) regaled us with incredible tales of human error and amazing endurance.

Day 3                                                                                                                                                           Day 3 began with a superb and comprehensive presentation on Mechanical Advantage by Bill Cardwell, retired Shenandoah Ranger and the only person to have attended every single BTRT–E course. This was beautifully demonstrated at multiple stations where raising and lowering systems had been rigged around the gazebo. This included his elegant twin tensioned line system which is used by Shenandoah Mountain Rescue and has been included in the 2017 Petzl Verticality catalog. Bill also presented the results of drop tests conducted at New River Gorge, displaying the actual Petzl IDs and Prusiks containing the damaged ropes from the tests. Those punctuate his compelling argument for a twin tensioned system!

Litter rigging, raising and lowering were then demonstrated. Teams rotated through the following skills stations:

Pre-tensioned Back Tie               Radium Release Hitch               Tandem Prusik Belay

During the afternoon session, we learned the technique for a BC (Better Control) Pick Off of a subject stranded on rope. It is the NPS preferred method of lowering the rescuer, resources permitting, as it  avoids over-tasking the rescuer who transfers the subject to his/her system with the aid of a jigger.

After three solid days of training, the team members had developed strong bonds.

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At dusk we headed for the cliffs where our tireless Instructors had rigged a multitude of rappel and belay ropes over the hundred foot cliffs.  Prior caving experience had prepared me for long drops in total darkness; but for most students, it was their first time to rappel in the dark. That was a very impressive achievement for those who had experienced their first rappel just 48 hours earlier!  Many stations of varying difficulty were available.  The gear cache now includes Petzl ASAP Mobile Fall Arrestors which conserved manpower at the belay stations and safely streamlined the process. The number of repetitions possible (3-6) depended upon the length of time one was willing to stand in line for a choice drop and how quickly one could climb back to the cliff top. Rappelling beside the New River Gorge Bridge on a starry night was one of my best times ever on rope.

Day 4                                                                                                                                                       Instruction customarily starts an hour later than usual on the morning following the night evolution; but thunderstorms were predicted for Thursday afternoon so the day began at 0800.  Following a safety briefing and GAR analysis, Kevin presented a brief lecture on “how to organize a rescue”.  The original six teams were then combined into three.  Assignments were made within each of those combined teams for a Main Line Team, a Belay Line Team and a Hasty/Medical/Litter/Edge Team.  We were transported to the Endless Wall Trailhead for a 30 minute hike with equipment and litters to our assigned task locations.

The Endless Wall

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Under the careful observation of our instructor cadre, the teams rigged anchors for lowering and raising evolutions with a loaded litter. Edge safety lines and protection were placed and rescue load lowering and raising systems were constructed. All students rotated through each station in the course of three evolutions during which a litter was rigged, loaded, lowered with an attendant and raised with a 3:1 haul system.

Although not every student functioned as a litter attendant, each had a turn on the Hasty/Medical/Litter/Edge Team as well as lowering/changeover/raising on the Main Line and Belay Line teams.

Ahead of the coming storm, all gear was packed at 1600h and carried back to our transportation at the trail head.  Back at the Gazebo, Bill Cardwell presented a new “Y Knot” for constructing a secure and atraumatic chest harness for patient restraint in the litter.  Marco then demonstrated a secure patient packaging technique for vertical rescue. A litter was suspended from the rafters and tending was practiced.

Meanwhile, the three combined teams selected, organized and packed their gear in preparation for the final scenarios with mock rescues which would occur the next morning.

Day 5                                                                                                                                               Early morning mist gave way to a clear blue sky and fair weather for our final scenarios.  Team Bloody Snow (combined Red and White) aka Winter Massacre was directed to a cliff where a witness told us there had been two accidents.  Our subject had been heard calling from deep in the gorge north of our location. Our first action was to locate her. Once contact was established, safety lines were placed and rappel and belay ropes were attached with high-strength tie offs around a “bomber” tree near the cliff edge. Using ASAP belays a physician and medic rappelled to the canyon floor near the victim and began assessment. She had “fallen” approximately 20 feet while climbing and landed on her left foot. She was conscious with stable vital signs but very cold.  Examination revealed an open left tibia fracture and back pain with normal circulation, sensation and motor function.  She was wearing a helmet and climbing harness.

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A litter and attendant were lowered while the Main and Belay teams were constructing lowering and raising systems for patient evacuation. There was no available road or water access to the canyon floor at that location.  The patient was treated, packaged and secured in the litter for raising in a horizontal or vertical position. 

                                

The haul system was weighted and tested before raising began.

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Up slow!

The edge is difficult to negotiate and we learn the value of a high directional!

We get by with a little help from our friends – edge attendants in action!

At last! Our patient said it was a smooth ride.

Mission accomplished in the nick of time!

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Well done Team Bloody Snow aka Winter Massacre!

Two other scenarios were run simultaneously.The Course concluded with an After Action Report and awarding of Certificates.

This was one of the best training events I have attended and is a must for Rangers and Volunteers operating under National Park Service Protocols.  The experience, expertise and teaching ability of       the Instructor Cadre is truly remarkable.  The opportunity for networking and information sharing is fantastic.  If given an opportunity, I would attend again in a heartbeat.  Meanwhile, we must all continually practice these extremely perishable skills, foster teamwork and training at every opportunity and be Semper Paratus…”That Others May Live”!

Respectfully, Ken Miller                                                                                                                                                             Backcountry Unit Search and Rescue

Responses – 

  • Party stranded by highwater at Abrams Creek – Borkowski

Team Workouts – 

I asked Anthony how he felt after the BUSAR fitness test. Thumbs up!

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Get Naked…

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Naked… Apparently the word “Naked” pulls more web traffic than anything.

According to my computer nerd buddy, the all time highest visitation on my blog came from the time I posted about training Melissa LeEllen for her Naked & Afraid episode in Panama.

Anyway, Melissa’s episode premieres this Sunday, April 23, at 9pm on Discovery.

http://www.melissaleellen.com/

Corrections, Credits, and Tips – Hero Award…

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Steve Ahillen, of the Knoxville News Sentinel, wrote a good article about Ryan and I receiving the Tennessee Conservation Hero Awatd for our work on the Spur on the night of the Gatlinburg Firestorm. He did a great job of recounting the story, but with so many details, there are bound to be a few errors.

I also wanted to give some credit to others, throw out a few tips, and share my supervisor’s report with my family, friend’s, and blog followers, as it was based off our original reports.

Article: Rangers on Spur

Corrections:

  1. The father and two sons ran up to me while I was hiking enroute to the tree, not once I got there.  After asking what was going on, they ran forward. Their running was the stimulus for others to exit their cars thinking there was a reason to run.
  2. Ryan and I majored in Wildlife & Fisheries Science. Not a big deal unless you are a wildlife guy. We have minors in Forestry though.
  3. Red cards are the certification to fight wildland fires. S-212 is the class that allows you to run chainsaws on fires. It is a qualifiication on your red card.
  4. The dragon quote was in reference to when I was evacuating park headquarters. I remember looking up and seeing the red glow behing the mountain, which I likened to the dragon. Once we got into the edge of Gatlinburg, the dragon had caught up. Fire was on both sides of us and backing down behind NOC, where we blocked the park entrance.
  5. I think the word “insistent” would be a better description than “demanded”, in reference to when I got ahold of the dispatcher.  The dispatcher couldn’t see the fire behavior on my end of the park, so I had to relate the urgency. There was a lot of “please” and “thank you’s” on my end, as they called me back three times while trying to locate my wife and child, due to incorrect gate codes and my wife being at a neighbor’s house. I am very grateful to the dispatcher that night and Meadow Branch Volunteer Fire Department for their response.

Credits:

  • Ryan and I were just one part of a big team working together that night. The events that unfolded were outside the spectrum of known fire behavior in this region and the hastily thrown together plan and actions of all on the Spur saved numerous lives.
  • There were other park personnel on the Spur that night.  If LE Rangers weren’t directing traffic in the chaos, who knows what would have unfolded.
  • Rob Klein, the park’s fire ecologist, gave us chainsaw fuel at Gnatty Branch when we were dangerously low. I thanked him that night, but he deserves another one here.

And giving credit where credit is due, Ryan and I would not have been on the Spur that night if it wasn’t for a mutual mentor that both inspired us and helped us follow our dreams, eventhough we graduated over a decade apart.

Billy Minser, a wildlife professor at University of Tennessee, took me under his wing, back when I was a long-haired, river hippie judoka. A Vietnam veteran, recipient of the Wildlife Society Lifetime Achievement Award, and a true force of nature, Billy mentored and inspired Ryan and myself, along with multiple generations of wildlife students.  Receiving recognition from Billy carries more weight to both of us than he will ever know. Billy nominated us for this award, but he has been a hero to Ryan and I for years.

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Tips:

  • Chainsaws save lives, but you aren’t going to carry one in the back of your mini-van. This Silky Katana Boy would have cut everything out there that night blocking the road. Carried in your trunk, it could save your family, and others, during a natural disaster.
  • The pic above shows below our cabin as I clear and burn off the hillside, reducing the fuel load. Having to worry about my family that night was entirely my fault and due to my procrastination. I know better, having triaged communities on Western fire details, but I had just been picking away at it instead of getting down to business. Protecting your home and family is YOUR responsibility, so check out Firewise.org to learn how.
  • Leon Konz, my original Fire Management Officer, is teaching a free Firewise course on April 20th. It is free and open to anyone. I highly suggest you go.

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Herrington and Williamson Narrative of 11/28/2016

The Chimney Tops 2 fire was reported in Great Smoky Mountains National Park near Gatlinburg, Tennessee on Wednesday, November 23, 2016 at approximately 5:20 pm. The wildfire began burning in a remote location (Chimney Tops) about 5 miles within the Park.  The steep terrain with vertical cliffs and narrow rocky ridges made access to the wildfire difficult for firefighting efforts.  On Monday, November 28, exceptional drought conditions and extreme winds caused the wildfire to grow rapidly, with many new spot fires starting from blowing embers carried miles away, as well as, from sparks from downed powerlines outside the Park.

The fires in Sevier County burned over 17,000 acres and were later characterized by the Sevier County Mayor as “one for the century.”  The Chimney Tops 2 fire burned 10,964 acres in the park, making it the largest fire in Park history.  Other fires burned another 6,176 acres on private land throughout Sevier County destroying hundreds of buildings and caused 14 human fatalities.  Dozens of emergency rescue personnel responded from a variety of agencies, all of whom made significant contributions to reduce additional loss of life.  However, the hard work, quick thinking and courage of two individuals was instrumental in preventing additional loss of life that night.  The following is their story.

November 28, 2016 was Andrew Herrington’s first day back to work as a seasonal wildlife technician in the Twentymile area which is in the southwest portion of the Park.  His assignment for the day was to drive to Park Headquarters (Gatlinburg – about a two hour one way drive) and complete orientation with personnel and his supervisor, as well as, pick up supplies and equipment for the season.  Ryan Williamson, a permanent wildlife technician, was participating in the first day of a three day chainsaw course at the Twin Creeks Science and Education Center near Gatlinburg.

As the Chimney Top 2 fire increased in intensity and spread, late in the morning there was a call from the fire management office for any available firefighters.  Andrew and Ryan were the only employees in the Wildlife Branch that had current qualifications.  Ryan had his firefighting gear at Headquarters and was immediately assigned to patrol Little River Trail in a utility task vehicle (UTV) with two other firefighters.  Their assignment was to assess fire activity on the backside of Sugarland Mountain.  After driving the UTV to the Huskey Gap trail intersection and hiking about 3 miles, they determined where the fire was, made contact with the Fire Management Officer, hiked back down the trail (another 3 miles) and then drove back to Headquarters for their next assignment.

In the meantime, Andrew drove two hours back to Twentymile, got his firefighting gear, and then drove two hours back to Park Headquarters.   He and two other firefighters then drove up Ski Mountain road to serve as lookouts.  According to Andrew, the whole valley was choked with smoke and visibility was poor.  It was an area Andrew was familiar with as 15 years earlier he had worked on a Wildland Urban Interface crew that cut firebreaks in the area including a opening in front of the porch that they were using as a lookout.  Andrew remarked to the other firefighters that the area had grown up again and that it would burn if fire got in there.   He also asked if they had a chainsaw in the truck, and when they replied no, Andrew suggested that they leave the area since the roads were very narrow and winding, and the winds were picking up. 

Upon returning to Headquarters, Ryan and Andrew teamed up and were given the order by Chief Ranger Steve Kloster to evacuate and clear the headquarters building.  They split up, with Ryan clearing the second floor, Andrew clearing the basement floor, and both of them clearing the third floor.  After clearing the Headquarters building, they returned to the Little River Ranger station for their next assignment.

Back at the Ranger station they could see the red glow of the fire over the mountain.  They were asked if they had access to chainsaws.  Coincidentally, Ryan had a Wildlife branch chainsaw, as well as, his personal chainsaw from home with fuel, bar oil, and all the personal protective equipment for two men in his truck due to the scheduled chainsaw class.  Fire Management Officer, Greg Salansky, directed them to clear trees along the south end of the Gatlinburg Bypass road from Highway 441 to Campbell Lead (approximately 1.5 miles).  On their way to the Bypass road, Ryan and Andrew escorted approximately 700 evacuees out of the park fleeing towards Pigeon Forge.  They cut numerous trees along the 1.5 mile section of the Bypass road, reopening a main corridor for evacuation and then turned around to go back to Headquarters.

Embers started dropping on them and spot fires erupted on both sides of the Bypass road.  By the time they made it to the Bypass gate (1.5 miles) the fire was jumping the road.  They decided the Bypass road was not a safe evacuation route so Ryan reported it in over the radio, and they were instructed to close the gate.  Within a few short minutes the firestorm was upon them and they watched as it ripped by and violently went up the mountain toward the Ski Mountain community.  They closed the Bypass gate and headed down a fiery Highway 441 toward red light # 10 at the Gatlinburg entrance.  Both sides of the road were burning and trees were falling everywhere. They turned several visitors around and then parked diagonally in the road to prevent tourist from coming into the Park, and there were several.

Things looked really bad and Ryan called over the radio to anyone else at Park Headquarters that if they were there it was a time to leave or risk being burned.  Everything seemed to be on fire at this point, and they heard some radio traffic about trees falling on the Spur, a 5 mile section of highway 441 between Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge.  Sensing the urgency of the evacuation and the need for chainsaws to cut trees, they decided to head to the Spur.  They knew the Spur was a critical escape route from the fire and that the trees would need to be cleared so people could evacuate.

On the Spur, there were several trees down blocking one lane of traffic.  Ryan and Andrew  started cutting trees out of the road as they drove along, with Andrew riding in the passenger seat with his chainsaw on his lap so he could jump out and cut as quickly as possible.  Traffic soon came to a gridlock so Andrew jumped out of the truck and told Ryan he would run up the road and cut out the trees, thinking Ryan could follow along with the truck once the trees were cleared.  Andrew started running toward Pigeon Forge with his chainsaw and Ryan drove the truck along the road shoulder.  However, eventually Ryan had to park the truck and start walking toward Pigeon Forge with his chainsaw as well.  At this point, there were no fires burning nearby on the Spur.

As Ryan and Andrew quickly moved through the stopped vehicles to get to the downed trees, people started to panic and abandon their cars.  At one point, a father and two boys came running up behind Andrew.   Andrew told the father and two boys that he was heading up the road to cut out the trees, but they starting running forward.  When other drivers saw the father and boys running, they also started exiting their vehicles.  Knowing that unoccupied vehicles would block a critical escape route and potentially result in many deaths, Andrew directed people to stay in their vehicles and that they would get the trees cut out. Thankfully the people returned to their cars.

After walking through approximately 1.5 miles of traffic, Andrew arrived at Gnatty Branch and started cutting the tree.   A short while later, Ryan arrived, so Andrew jumped into a Pigeon Forge cruiser and went down the road to the next burning tree to remove it.  When Andrew returned, traffic on the North bound Spur (the escape route) was being diverted to South bound Spur because a tree had fallen and stopped traffic flow.  Ryan and Andrew cleared tree after tree trying to maintain traffic flow with law enforcement.  Soon afterwards the fire had taken the North bound Spur, closing it, meaning all traffic had to use the south Bound Spur for two way traffic, however trees had fallen only allowing one lane to operate.  Ryan and Andrew quickly cleared tree after tree.  During most of this time it was panic and confusion.  It was basic triage… take care of the worst first and roll with the punches.  Both stated details were a little blurry due to the intensity of the situation.

With no vehicle, Andrew told Ryan that he was going to hike back and get the truck. About halfway back, traffic cleared and a law enforcement unit stopped next to Andrew (Andrew couldn’t remember if it was Pigeon Forge or Gatlinburg).  Andrew asked the officer to get him back to the truck so he could keep cutting trees. When they got to the truck, there was fire on both sides. Andrew jumped into the truck and drove up to Ryan’s location.  When they met up, Andrew asked Ryan why he parked there and Ryan replied, “there was no fire around when I left it!”

Soon after, Andrew started getting messages on his cell phone. One of his neighbors emailed him the following: “Help! there is a fire in our neighborhood and it has melted the phone lines. We can’t call for help.  Emergency call 911.” Andrew’s wife and young son were in their cabin about one mile down a remote gravel road in that neighborhood.  The neighborhood borders the park so Andrew immediately notified Incident Command that there was another fire 1/2 mile from the park on the Tennessee/North Carolina border and then he called 911.  The Tennessee dispatcher could only connect Andrew with Blount County EMS, so he hung up and called Graham County dispatch.  Seeing the fire behavior in Gatlinburg, Andrew asked them to evacuate his wife and son. The dispatcher advised Andrew that they were aware of the fire near his house, and after some convincing by Andrew, they tried to find his cabin.  Thirty minutes later Graham County dispatch called Andrew and assured him that his family was safe.  Andrew described it as “the worst thirty minutes of the night for me.”

Neither Ryan nor Andrew could remember many specifics after this point. They were the only two people running chainsaws on the Spur and the work was physical and constant. They worked tirelessly throughout the night driving a big circuit along the entire length of both the North and Sound bound Spur (5 miles) cutting tree after tree.  Some were on fire, some were not.  Tensions were high and their conversations were at a minimum, but there was no other way out for these people and that was very apparent to both of them.

As they were working, they helplessly watched as buildings along the Spur went up in flames.  Ryan described it as “heart-wrenching to see fire roar through a community and to watch and hear the propane tanks explode like dominoes in succession.”  At times, the propane tank explosions would drown out the sound of his running chainsaw.  The winds were strong and trees kept falling.  At one point, while Ryan was cutting a tree with his back to the wind, the wind became so strong that it started pushing him into the tree.  Andrew had to grab ahold of Ryan, leaned back, bracing him while he cut on the tree.   Andrew stated, “I would like to know how strong that gust was, as I am 200 pounds and it was pushing me around”.  Andrew has been fighting fires for 16 years. He has had to run from straight line winds dropping snags around him and he has had his spike camp burned over once in Idaho, but this experience was surreal. Throughout the night they both wished they had their goggles as their eyes were getting trashed from the strong winds blowing dirt and ash in the sides of their safety glasses.

Late in the night, Ryan and Andrew returned to the middle of Gatlinburg to meet District Ranger Jared St. Clair.  The city looked like a nuclear war zone. Everywhere they looked on the hillsides the forest was burning and structures were torching.  Building security alarms were going off.  They had started work at 7am that day.  It was now 2 am, and Ryan and Andrew headed to the hotel in Pigeon Forge.  Their vision partly obscured due to exhaustion and the prolonged exposure to smoke, dirt and ash. They rehabbed their chainsaws for the morning, took a quick shower and went to bed.

Up at 7am on November 29, with less than 5 hours of sleep, Andrew and Ryan returned to the Park to clear more trees along Highway 441.  Both described this day as fuzzy due to being tired and exhausted, but neither complained.

Ryan and Andrew were each asked to write a report of their activities on November 28, 2016, which is what I used to write their story.  Ryan concluded in his report by describing that night as “a long night filled with raw emotion and high tensions.  Few events in life make you want to go hug your family, but watching others lose everything and potentially their family sure puts it into perspective.”  He also stated that, “he was honored to be able serve his community in a moment such as this.”

Andrew has been on a lot of fire assignments in his 16 year National Park Service career and commented, “Only out West, have I seen fire behavior that intense, never in the East. There was no way to plan for what happened that day as it was way outside the realm of known possibilities.   I watched the chaos; I experienced it; and I can tell whoever reads this that the reason nobody died at Headquarters or on the Spur is because good decisions were made in the heat of the moment.  I witnessed Steve Kloster, Jared St. Clair, and Greg Salansky decisions save lives in the park that night.”

As their supervisor, I am extremely proud of Ryan and Andrew, and I am honored that they work for me in the Wildlife Branch.  There is no doubt that the physical nonstop work they performed, and the quick decisions they made, saved many lives that night.  Both men are very modest, humble, giving, get the job done kind of guys, and probably don’t even realize the true magnitude of their efforts.  I suspect in their minds, they were just doing their jobs and what needed to be done.  However, we all know these guys truly were heroes that night.

Respectively,

Bill Stiver

Supervisory Wildlife Biologist