State to solve equipment problems in wake of deadly Sevier County wildfires

Photo from December 6, 2016 of the Lodge at Buckberry Creek after the Gatlinburg fires.

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) — Firefighters on the front lines of the Sevier County wildfires were working without GPS maps and using old cell phones, in some cases, old flip phones.

In the wake of the fires on November 28, 2016, the State Forestry Department is buying 101 new smartphones that will give firefighters better access to Google Earth and mapping technology.

That’s one of the lessons from the wildfires that took 14 lives and destroyed more than 1,000 buildings.

PHOTOS: Wildfires in East Tennessee

State Forester Jere Jeter took questions from the media in Nashville Wednesday, based on internal reports from employees involved in fighting those fires.

He revealed the State Forestry Department is also planning to replace 112 bulldozers for firefighting over the next four years. And they plan to put GPS tracking devices on some equipment to streamline dispatching.

Jeter says they had some communication challenges between the U.S. Forest Service on the ground and the Air National Guard. The agencies use different kinds of radio equipment. Generally, the state shares radio frequencies with other agencies and was able to help with communication in Sevier County.

“We had 50 people in Gatlinburg within two hours after the fire hit. Some were our employees, some were from Alaska and Oregon,” said Jeter, who explained the out-of-state teams had been working fires in other parts of the state. Teams from Florida and Texas also joined the effort.

Jeter called conditions highly unusual for the region, with 80 mile an hour winds that blew embers as far as a mile away. “You had a situation that I’m just thankful more people didn’t lose their lives.”

Click here for complete coverage on the Sevier County wildfires.