2016 Great Smoky Mountains wildfires

Coordinates: 35°37′44″N 83°28′42″W / 35.6289763°N 83.478327°W / 35.6289763; -83.478327 (2016 Great Smoky Mountains wildfires)
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2016 Great Smoky Mountains Wildfires
Part of the Southeastern U.S. wildfires
Smoke from the Chimney Tops 2 Fire
LocationGreat Smoky Mountains National Park, Sevier County, Tennessee, United States
Coordinates35°37′44″N 83°28′42″W / 35.6289763°N 83.478327°W / 35.6289763; -83.478327 (2016 Great Smoky Mountains wildfires)
CostUS$2 billion in damages
Date(s)November 23, 2016 (2016-11-23) – December 22, 2016 (2016-12-22) (EDT)
Burned area17,900 acres (72 km2)
Buildings destroyed2,460 destroyed
Non-fatal injuriesUnknown
Perpetrator(s)Two juveniles charged with aggravated arson.

The 2016 Great Smoky Mountains wildfires, also known as the Gatlinburg wildfires,[1] were a complex of wildfires which began in late November 2016. Some of the towns most impacted were Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg, both near Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The fires claimed at least 14 lives,[5][6] injured 190,[7] and is one of the largest natural disasters in the history of Tennessee.[8][9][10][11][12][13][excessive citations]

By December 12, the fires had burned more than 10,000 acres (15 square miles) inside the national park, and 6,000 acres in other parts of the area. At least 14,000 area residents and tourists were forced to evacuate, while over 2,000 buildings were damaged and/or destroyed.[7]

One of the largest wildfires was the Chimney Tops 2 Fire, which burned more than 10,000 acres, and closed the Chimney Tops Trail.[14]

The Great Smoky Mountains wildfires were the deadliest wildfires in Tennessee,[15] as well as the deadliest wildfires in the eastern U.S. since the Great Fires of 1947, which killed 16 people in Maine.[16][17] In addition, the fires were also the most deadly and destructive of the 2016 Southeastern United States wildfires.

American country singer and notable figure of the area Dolly Parton were among many notable figures to pitch in to help the cause.[18]


United States Drought Monitor image from November 22, 2016, showing exceptional drought across the Smoky Mountains of east Tennessee and southwest North Carolina.
Chimney Tops, seen about 6 months after the fires with visible burn scars.

The Chimney Tops 2 Fire was originally reported on November 23, 2016. No suppression activities were initiated and on November 24, 2016, park fire officials delineated containment boundary made of natural features which were hoped to contain the fire. On November 27, while the fire was still inside the containment boundary, three Chinook helicopters dumped water on the fire in an effort to mitigate its spread. Humidity values for this day dropped to as low as 17 percent during a period of "Exceptional" drought. A National Weather Service report issued on Sunday predicted wind gusts up to 40 mph the following day.

On November 28, park employees observed that the fire had spread to the Chimneys Picnic Area north of and outside the containment boundary. Shortly thereafter fire was reported some distance further to the North in the park behind a residential area known as Mynatt Park. Throughout the afternoon and evening of November 28, numerous fires developed in the Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge areas as a result of wind-driven sparks or downed power lines. Strong southerly winds (with wind gusts up to 87 mph) created by mountain waves[19][20] blew sparks into the Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge areas and knocked down trees (which in turn started fires when they hit power lines). A separate named fire destroyed much of the Cobbly Nob subdivision east of Gatlinburg.[21]

Because of power outages to some pumping stations on November 28 and because other pumping stations burned, hydrants quickly went dry on November 28, and Gatlinburg Fire Chief Greg Miller first asked for help from all of Sevier County and later from the entire state.[22] Damage from the fires also prevented firefighters from communicating with each other through cell phones as the radio system became overloaded. Gatlinburg's emergency operations center phone system went down when it lost power. Even the 911 system could not handle all the calls it received, and calls intended for Sevier County went to Putnam County instead.[23]

Investigation and arrests[edit]

Two unnamed juveniles were initially charged with aggravated arson in connection to the fires; however, charges were later dropped due to lack of evidence as well as language in an agreement between the State of Tennessee and the Department of the Interior which excluded state jurisdiction from prosecuting criminal activities that occurred entirely within the park.[4][24][25] Throughout the course of the investigation which revealed that many of the area fires were likely caused by embers wind-blown from the existing larger fire, local officials declined to release any information about the fires or response, citing an erroneous interpretation of a gag order.[26]


President Barack Obama ordered federal disaster relief funds to go to the hard hit area of Sevier County in response to the vast devastation.

President-elect Donald Trump tweeted: "My thoughts and prayers are with the great people of Tennessee during these terrible wildfires. Stay safe!"[27][28]

Governor Bill Haslam viewed the fires from above, and said it was "a little numbing" to see the extent of the damage. Noting that the region is a "special place" in Tennessee, he said "millions of families have come here and will continue to come here."[29]

Commenting on the devastation, country music star Dolly Parton (originally from Sevierville) said she was "heartbroken". Her theme park, Dollywood (in Pigeon Forge), was largely spared from damage.[30]


A telethon, benefiting fire victims, was held December 9, in Nashville. The event featured country music artists such as Kenny Chesney, Brad Paisley, John Rich, John Oates, and Kristian Bush, and Dolly Parton.[31] $9 million were raised.[32]

Parton hosted another telethon Tuesday, December 13, also in Nashville. All of the proceeds raised went to help those who lost their homes in the wildfires.[33] Her fund, the "My People Fund", provided $1,000 a month for six months to over 900 families affected by the wildfires, finally culminating with $5,000 to each home in the final month due to increased fundraising, for a total of $10,000 per family.[34][35][36]


Soon after the fires were contained, Gatlinburg Mayor Mike Warner implored vacationers "If you really want to do something for Gatlinburg, come back and visit us."[37]

Stefanie Benjamin, Associate Professor of Hospitality and Tourism at the University of Tennessee noted that despite negative press from the fire, the region "was able to recuperate fairly quickly."[38]

The impact of the "My People Fund"'s financial relief, as well as the overall impacts of the disaster on residents, was studied by University of Tennessee College of Social Work professor Stacia West, who examined the impact of cash transfers in poverty alleviation.[39] West surveyed 100 recipients of the emergency relief funds in April 2017 on topics including questions on housing, financial impact, physical and emotional health, and sources of support, with a follow-up survey conducted in December 2017. West found that the "My People Fund," in tandem with traditional disaster response, gave families the ability to make decisions that were most beneficial to them, and concluded that unconditional cash support may be more beneficial for disaster relief than conditional financial support.[40] The report cited the impact of the monthly financial disbursements from the "My People Fund" on residents' emergency savings: "Following the monthly disbursements of unconditional cash assistance, participants were able to return to baseline financial stability reported prior to the wildfire, and improve their ability to set aside savings for hypothetical future emergencies."[41]

On May 24, 2018, a federal lawsuit was filed against the Great Smoky Mountains National Park on behalf of victims seeking damages for the failure to stop the Chimney Tops 2 fire before it left the park.[42] U.S. District Judge Ronnie Greer ruled September 8, 2020 that the National Park Service failed in its efforts to warn people in the area about the fires, meaning the park service can be held financially responsible and making a jury trial possible.[43] Greer dismissed the suit in 2022 over "a paperwork error" but was overruled by an appellate panel in August 2023. The discovery process comes next and both sides have the opportunity for summary judgment.[44]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Satterfield, Jamie (September 9, 2020). "National Park Service failed to warn residents in deadly Gatlinburg wildfires, judge rules". Knoxville News Sentinel. Retrieved September 9, 2020.
  2. ^ Lakin, Matt (November 19, 2017). "1 year ago, a 'whole mountain on fire' forever changed Gatlinburg". Knoxville News Sentinel. Retrieved September 9, 2020.
  3. ^ "Chimney Tops 2 Fire". Great Smoky Mountains National Park. National Park Service. December 22, 2016. Retrieved September 9, 2020.
  4. ^ a b "Two juveniles charged with arson in deadly Tennessee fire". wlwt.com. WLWT 5. Retrieved 7 December 2016.
  5. ^ Carr, Ada (December 4, 2016). "Gatlinburg Residents Get First Look at Destruction Left Behind By Wildfire | The Weather Channel". weather.com. Retrieved December 5, 2016.
  6. ^ "The Latest: Death toll from wildfires increases to 14". ap.org. December 4, 2016. Archived from the original on December 5, 2016. Retrieved December 5, 2016.
  7. ^ a b Rolando Zenteno; Jason Hanna; Madison Park (5 December 2016). "Death toll in Sevier County still rising". CNN.
  8. ^ Laila Kearney and Dan Whitcomb (29 November 2016). "Great Smoky Mountains fires leave three dead, 'scene of destruction' | Reuters". reuters.com. Retrieved December 4, 2016.
  9. ^ "Fires Near Smoky Mountains Prompt Mandatory Evacuations in Tennessee | NBC New York". nbcnewyork.com. 29 November 2016. Retrieved December 4, 2016.
  10. ^ Bracken, Matt (November 29, 2016). "Gatlinburg evacuated after Great Smoky Mountains National Park fire". BaltimoreSun.com. Retrieved December 5, 2016.
  11. ^ "Slideshow: Great Smoky Mountain Wildfires | Fox News". foxnews.com. 29 November 2016. Retrieved December 4, 2016.
  12. ^ "Death toll rises to seven in Tennessee's Great Smoky Mountains fires | The Gazette". Archived from the original on December 2, 2016. Retrieved December 4, 2016.
  13. ^ "Gatlinburg wildfires: Thousands evacuated from Smoky Mountains resort". 29 November 2016.
  14. ^ Chavez, K (November 28, 2016). "US 441 in Smokies, trails close for 500-acre fire". citizen-times.com. Retrieved December 4, 2016.
  15. ^ Tuesday marks 1-year anniversary of deadliest wildfire in Tennessee history, WLOS, November 28, 2017
  16. ^ "Worst U.S. Forest Fires". Infoplease.com. Retrieved 6 December 2016.
  17. ^ Butler, Joyce; Parent, Tom. "When Maine Burned: Remembering 50 Years Ago". Firehouse. Retrieved 6 December 2016.
  18. ^ "Dolly Parton Provides Fire Victims 'Shoulder To Lean On'".
  19. ^ Ryan Shadbolt; Joseph Charney; Hannah Fromm (2019). "A mesoscale simulation of a mountain wave wind event associated with the Chimney Tops 2 fire (2016)" (Special Symposium on Mesoscale Meteorological Extremes: Understanding, Prediction, and Projection). American Meteorological Society: 5 pp. {{cite journal}}: Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  20. ^ David M. Gaffin (2009). "On High Winds and Foehn Warming Associated with Mountain-Wave Events in the Western Foothills of the Southern Appalachian Mountains". Weather and Forecasting. 24 (1): 53–75. Bibcode:2009WtFor..24...53G. doi:10.1175/2008WAF2007096.1.
  21. ^ "Analyzing the fire that burned into Gatlinburg". wildfiretoday.com. 5 December 2016. Retrieved December 23, 2016.
  22. ^ Jacobs, Don (February 19, 2017). "Firefighters raced to Gatlinburg, only to find some hydrants were running dry". Asheville Citizen-Times. Retrieved March 23, 2017.
  23. ^ Lakin, Matt; Jacobs, Don (August 9, 2017). "Gatlinburg wildfire records tell story of chaos, confusion". Asheville Citizen-Times. Retrieved August 10, 2017.
  24. ^ "Two juveniles charged with arson in Tennessee wildfires that left 14 people dead". The Washington Post.
  25. ^ "Attorney: Arson charges against teens in fatal Gatlinburg wildfire dropped". The Knoxville News Sentinel. June 30, 2017. Retrieved June 30, 2017.
  26. ^ "Judge issues order allowing release of some records in Gatlinburg wildfires". Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. June 27, 2017. Retrieved June 27, 2017.
  27. ^ "Donald Trump Tweets About Tennessee Wildfires". Archived from the original on 2016-11-30. Retrieved 2016-12-06.
  28. ^ Searles, Kaylin (29 November 2016). "President-elect Donald Trump's 'thoughts and prayers' with TN amid wildfires".
  29. ^ Jason Hanna; Artemis Moshtaghian; Madison Park; Darran Simon (29 November 2016). "Gatlinburg, TN residents escape 'firestorm'". CNN.
  30. ^ Buncombe, Andrew (November 29, 2016). "Gatlinburg fires: Dolly Parton's resort under threat as hundreds flee Tennessee wildfires | The Independent". independent.co.uk. Archived from the original on 2022-05-01. Retrieved December 4, 2016.
  31. ^ "Nashville TV station airing live star-filled telethon for Gatlinburg victims". The Tennessean.
  32. ^ Ahillen, Steve (May 26, 2017). "6 months after wildfire, Gatlinburg area getting back on its feet". Asheville Citizen-Times. Retrieved May 29, 2017.
  33. ^ "Dolly Parton Is Hosting a Telethon to Help Tennessee Wildfire Victims". December 5, 2016.
  34. ^ Knoepp, Lilly (December 24, 2019). "'How Dolly Parton Gave $12.5 Million And Unprecedented Research To Sevier County'". Blue Ridge Public Radio. Retrieved May 4, 2022.
  35. ^ Cole, Devan (May 6, 2019). "'FBI honors Dolly Parton for work following Great Smoky Mountain wildfires'". CNN. Retrieved May 4, 2022.
  36. ^ Flanagan, Andrew (May 8, 2017). "Dolly Parton Provides Fire Victims 'Shoulder To Lean On'". NPR. Retrieved May 4, 2022.
  37. ^ "Sevier Co. officials encouraging visitors: "If you want to help, come visit us"". wbir.com. Retrieved 2017-12-19.
  38. ^ "Looking Back | 1 Year After the Gatlinburg Wildfires". Cabins USA Pigeon Forge Cabins in the Smoky Mountains. Retrieved 2017-12-19.
  39. ^ Trieu, Cat (February 21, 2019). "'Social worker, faculty member looks to alleviate poverty through studies, community work'". The UT Beacon. Retrieved May 4, 2022.
  40. ^ WBIR (November 27, 2017). "UT professor studying financial, emotional impact of 'My People Fund'". WBIR. Retrieved May 4, 2022.
  41. ^ Nelson, Kristi L (April 19, 2018). "'Gatlinburg wildfire survivors found cash most helpful for recovery, says UT report'". Knox News. Retrieved May 4, 2022.
  42. ^ Lakin, Matt (2018-05-24). "Lawsuit seeks millions in damages for Michael Reed, other Gatlinburg fire victims". Knoxville News Sentinel. Retrieved 2018-06-14.
  43. ^ Satterfield, Jamie (2020-09-09). "National Park Service failed to warn residents in deadly Gatlinburg wildfires, judge rules". Knoxville News Sentinel. Retrieved 2020-09-11.
  44. ^ Whetstone, Tyler (2023-08-17). "Victims of 2016 Gatlinburg wildfire score major victory in lawsuit against Park Service". Knox News. Retrieved 2023-08-18.