New documents detail how firefighters discovered Chimney Tops II wildfire in Smokies

Wildfire on Chimney Top in Great Smoky Mountains National Park (Courtesy: WATE/Report It! Chris Higgins)

GATLINBURG, Tenn. (WATE) – Newly released documents from the National Park Service reveal new details about the initial discovery of the Chimney Tops II wildfire and matches that were believed to have been involved in starting it.

The fire eventually spread to Gatlinburg, leading to 14 deaths and millions of dollars in damage.

The documents say on Nov. 23, the day before Thanksgiving, crews were called to a vehicle fire on the second pullout below Newfound Gap around 5 p.m. in case the fire spread to the woods. Rangers spotted a column of smoke coming from the vehicle, but not in the woods.

After getting to the scene, Fire Management Officer Greg Salansky saw what looked like smoke coming from the second chimney spire of the Chimney Tops.

Salansky pulled over to get a better look and to report the fire. Two 18-year-olds came by and said they had seen matches “thrown all over the place” in the Chimney Tops.

Salansky said the smoke looked like two separate smoke columns about 30 to 50 feet from the top of the second spire. He and firefighter April Deming got to the first one about 7 p.m.

Deming was uncomfortable climbing in the dark, but Salansky went on, arriving at the fire around 9:20 p.m. The fire was burning somewhere around an acre, but because of darkness and the rough terrain, Salanksy decided he couldn’t safely do anything to suppress the fire.

Salansky and Deming then hiked back down and alerted rangers to the matches.

The next day, Salansky and four firefighters planned to hike to the Chimney Tops and begin fire suppression actions. They were also to look for any evidence of the reported matches. They got to the first Chimney Top around 11:30 a.m. and could see part of the fire. Salansky and firefighter Sara Martinez were the only ones who felt comfortable climbing to the second Chimney Top.

They eventually reached the fire and began trying to figure out how to attack the fire, but soon realized there was no way they could engage the fire with a direct attack.

They then began looking for the matches. One site had a single match among some gravel above a five foot drop off. Another site had three matches lying a few feet apart below an approximate two-foot drop off. The matches had been ignited at the head but were not burned any further. They took photos and collected the matches.

The fire had grown to around two or three acres by this time. The two firefighters then climbed back down the mountain, briefed officials on what they saw and turned in the matches.

The documents also estimate the costs for fighting the fire by the National Park Service were upward of $15 million.

Two juveniles were eventually charged with starting the fire, but those charges were later dropped.