Gatlinburg fire chief reflects on deadly wildfires

(Courtesy: Tennessee Department of Agriculture)

GATLINBURG, Tenn. (WATE) – It’s been almost one year since one of the darkest days in East Tennessee history – the Gatlinburg wildfires.

Six months ago in a one-on-one interview, Fire Chief Greg Miller said he wanted to say more but that a gag order was in place. At the time, he called not being able to talk freely one of the most challenging things after the fire.

Since that interview, charges have been dropped against two teens and public records requests have been granted.

Our sister station recently spoke with Chief Miller to find out what he really wanted the public to know about that November day last year.

“These firemen did not quit on you,” he said. “They didn’t run in the opposite direction. They were going in areas that their training told them was a no-go situation.”

Miller said some of his men and women saw more fires in one night than most firefighters will see in a whole career.

(AP Photo)

PHOTOS: Wildfires in East Tennessee

“If you break that down, that’s a structure fire every 19 seconds,” he said. “Just that magnitude, the speed of how quick it was coming through, the swirling winds and the wind gusts, and you add to it all of the other challenges that we were faced with that night, the fractured communications and power-outages and pump houses and all of those things.”

The firestorm was so powerful it even forced all emergency responders out of their command center in the middle of the chaos. When asked if he was scared, Miller said yes, but not for himself – instead for everyone else trying to escape the flames and his crews out there fighting them.

He described the anxiety listening to one captain after another on the radio from the command post.

“It was an emotional roller coaster because he would holler for his crews to get into a parking lot and get face down because the fire was going over top of them,” Miller recalled.

He went on to say, “They would say, ‘I need you to get face down and pray,’ and then the radio would go silent for a few minutes and during those few minutes as a fire chief, you’re not knowing if you just lost 10 or 12 firefighters or not, and then the next thing you know the radio would chirp and the captain would get on the radio and say that he’s okay and he would call out to all of his men and they would one by one say that they’re okay, so then you get to breathe again.”

While Chief Miller is now talking about the experience, many of those on the front lines that night still cannot.

(Courtesy: Mark Nagi/TDOT via WATE)

Miller said, “Some of them will discuss it, some of them don’t want to talk about it. Some of them, and rightfully so, didn’t think they were going to go home that night, that they didn’t think they were going to see their spouse or their kids again.”

While telling their stories and defending his crews is important, the chief stressed that now one year later the focus needs to be on lessons learned.

That’s why there are new warning sirens, a push to sign up for code red alerts, new, more visible road signage to help with escape routes and a new am radio station will soon be up and running as another way to get information out in an emergency.

“I think that’s what’s going to be important is, ‘What do we do now, now that we know?’”

He added, “There’s no way we can say it’s never happened here. Well, it happened here. It happened on November 28, 2016.”

Click here for complete coverage on the Sevier County wildfires.