Gatlinburg Fire 2016: How It Happened & the Aftermath

The Gatlinburg fire of 2016 began in late November - the day before Thanksgiving - on Chimney Tops Trail in a period of extreme drought. After 5 days of the fire spreading around the northern part of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and into Gatlinburg, it was finally contained. It is now considered one of the largest natural disasters in the history of Tennessee.

Gatlinburg Fire 2016

Gatlinburg Fire 2016: The Start

On Wednesday, November 23, 2016 a hiker on the popular Chimney Tops Trail managed to capture a photo of two teenage boys dropping lit matches on the trail despite the current no-burn order in the area. That evening, GSM park officials tweeted that a 1.5 acre fire (Chimney Tops 2 fire) was burning in a steep location around the Chimneys. Initially park officials did not attempt to suppress the fire, as they expected the natural landscape of the area to contain it.

Between Thursday, November 24 and Saturday, November 25 National Park Service crews "identified and worked to establish a containment area lower down on the mountain where there was a higher chance of success to stop the fire" (NPS) until the weather took a turn for the worse the following Sunday. [Click to show containment area map]

Gatlinburg fire 2016: containment area around the Chimneys

The initially established containment zone for the fire around the Chimneys

November 24 containment area of the Gatlinburg fire

Thursday, November 24: the fire's current range within the containment area

November 26 containment area of the Gatlinburg fire

Saturday, November 26: the fire had spread but still remained within the containment area

The Fire's Spread

The humidity values for the area on Sunday, November 26 dropped to an exceptionally low 17%, and the national weather service warned to expect 40 mph winds the following day. National Guard crews from Chattanooga were called in, and three Chinook helicopters began dumping gallons of water from Pigeon River's West Prong on top of the fire. At this time the fire was still within the defined containment boundary. The crews went home late Sunday night.

The following Monday morning of November 28, maintenance crews discovered that the containment area had failed, and the fire had spread across 250 acres - 10 times as big as it was the day before. Wind gusts had spread embers from the Chimney Tops fire and other small fires had begun to break out. The wind also created large clouds of smoke, making it impossible for air support to intervene. [Click to show containment area map]

November 28 containment area of the Gatlinburg fire

Monday, November 28: the day the area had wind gusts of 40 mph, the fire exploded

Original fire area around the Chimneys shown next to ridges south of Gatlinburg

Above: The strong gusts of wind picked up embers from the Chimney Tops 2 fire and wildfires began to appear on the western ridges of Mount LeConte, toward the Twin Creeks picnic area, and eventually into Gatlinburg.

The City of Gatlinburg

By Monday, Gatlinburg's streetlights had switched on during the day as a haze enveloped the mountain town. An additional fire near Twin Creeks Picnic Pavilion (less than 2 miles from Gatlinburg's city limits) had been spotted that morning. Ash covered cars and trees began to fall due to the wind. Fire management officer for the national park Greg Salansky recommended evacuation for residents around Mynatt Park. Park officials closed roads and trails.

By the time local officials were informed about the true danger, the Chimney Tops 2 fire was unstoppable. A lack of early notice was the most critical failure of all.Greg Miller, Gatlinburg Fire Chief

Gatlinburg Fire 2016: Aftermath

Most of Gatlinburg's community (around 14,000 people) were able to evacuate safely, but by December 12, 2016, fourteen people had been killed and nearly 200 were injured. The fires ultimately burned more than 15 square miles of land inside the national park (most notably the area surrounding Mount LeConte and the Chimneys) and more than 2,000 buildings were destroyed.

Destroyed Gatlinburg Properties

Among the debris included Alamo Steakhouse (which has since been rebuilt), Highland Condominiums, Hughes Hall and Wild Wing at Arrowmont, Buckberry Lodge, about 70 homes in the Cobbly Knob area, 31 homes within the Condo Villas of Gatlinburg Association, Cupid's Chapel of Love, several Dollywood cabins, The Mountain Lodge restaurant, homes at Tree Tops Resort, around 70 homes in Wears Valley, and many cabins at Westgate Resort.

February 2021: new growth on Baskins Creek Trail
February 2021: new growth on Baskins Creek Trail

Affected Trails in the GSM

Just after the fire, 31 miles of hiking trails were closed indefinitely due to fire or wind damage. They were Baskins Creek, Bullhead, Chimney Tops, Cove Hardwood Nature Trail, Cove Mountain, the Gatlinburg Trail, Huskey Gap, the Bud Ogle nature trail, Old Sugarlands, Rainbow Falls, Road Prong, Rough Creek, Sugarland Valley, Trillium Gap, Twin Creeks, the Sugarlands horse concession trails, and portions of Sugarland Mountain and Grapeyard Ridge.

A lot of the affected area was in around Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail and Cherokee Orchard. The trails that sustained the most damage were of course Chimney Tops where the fire started, in addition to Bullhead, Baskins Creek, and Rainbow Falls. Bull Head ridge was one of the first areas the fires "ridge hopped" to on Monday, November 28, 2016. You can still see much of the damage these trails sustained today.

November 2020: burnt trees on Bullhead Trail
November 2020: burnt trees on Bullhead Trail
November 2020: new growth appearing on Bullhead Trail
November 2020: new growth appearing on Bullhead Trail

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