GATLINBURG, Tennessee (AP) — The wildfire that popped up on a steep, rugged peak in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park was just one of a dozen that fire crews had been fighting over the last month because of the drought.
But the Nov. 23 fire on Chimney Tops proved to be extraordinary – it jumped containment lines and hopped from ridge to ridge on a path to the resort city of Gatlinburg, killing 13 people along the way. In a first look at the origins of the fire, park officials explained to The Associated Press on Thursday how nothing was going to stop this voracious beast from spreading over 16,000 acres in just 24 hours.
PHOTOS: Wildfire in East Tennessee
Inside the park, soot, ash and blackened trees covered the forest floor. The gorgeous vistas of tree-topped mountain ranges were scarred by large areas of blackened soil and trees. Small plumes of smoke smoldered from hot spots.
In some areas, the wooden guardrails along the roadway were charred or even gone. The park buzzed with the sound of chain saws as crews from all over the country removed fallen trees and debris. Bark burned right off the trees, exposing the trunks, and large stumps were still hot to the touch.
Deputy Park Superintendent Jordan Clayton said the initial fire on Chimney Tops, a double peaked ridge line about 4 miles away from Gatlinburg, was caused by a person or people. The fire started near the end of a popular hiking trail, where people visit almost every day.
“Whether it was purposefully set or whether it was a careless act that was not intended to cause a fire, that we don’t know,” Clayton said. “The origin of the fire is under investigation.”
For several days, the fire worked its way through the thick layer of leaves on the forest floor and helicopters dumped water on it to slow its spread. But on Monday, low humidity, drought conditions and wind gusts of up to 40 mph turned the area into a tinderbox.
“This entire area was shrouded in smoke,” Clayton said.
The winds kicked up even more and carried embers to ridge tops and valleys half a mile away and new fires popped up all around. The park alerted Gatlinburg and Sevier County officials to be on the lookout.
Clayton said 1,000 firefighters and engines lined up “end to end” couldn’t have stopped the flames.
At 5 p.m. Monday, the city of Gatlinburg had no reported fires. Within an hour, more than 20 structures were on fire. Wind gusts as high as 87 miles per hour toppled trees onto power lines, setting more fires.
Clayton said in his 30 years as a park ranger and official, he’s never seen a fire spread so quickly.
“The national park will heal quickly. The community will heal slowly,” Clayton said.