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.
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.
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.
Supervisory Wildlife Biologist