GATLINBURG, Tenn. — Newly released records show failed communication systems hampered the response to deadly wildfires in Tennessee last fall.
Records that Sevier County began to release Wednesday that wind and fire on Nov. 28 combined to disable cell towers, melt fiber-optic cables and disrupt radio signals and phone lines, the Knoxville News Sentinel reported .
Autopsy reports were also released for 13 of the 14 people who died after the wildfires. The cause of death for nine victims was shown as smoke inhalation, WBIR-TV reported . One person was hit by a tree limb and then may have died of smoke inhalation, while two may have died due to health issues or a car accident. One died of cardiac stress.
WATE-TV reports dashcam videos, radio traffic and 911 calls show what dispatchers faced.
“The whole mountain is on fire up here,” one caller says. “We’re trying to make our way down, but I think we’re all going to burn up quick. Can you do something?”
The communication problems also undermined efforts to send a mobile evacuation alert. Tennessee Emergency Management Agency officials said sending such a notice with no details would have created panic and done more harm than good.
“So much was happening so fast,” said Patrick Sheehan, TEMA director. “We were getting conflicting reports. Our liaison was on his way to the scene and stuck in traffic on (U.S.) Highway 321 (outside town). At some point, the news stations told us there was a mandatory evacuation. We tried to re-establish contact with Sevier County. Every redundant system we had in place for a period of time was not working.”
Sheehan finally reached Sevier County Emergency Management Director John Mathews by cell and offered to send an evacuation alert to every cellphone in the area — but not without Mathews’ direction and approval.
“We can’t just say, ‘Evacuate.’ That would be irresponsible,” Sheehan said. “We don’t know whether there are trees or power lines across which roads.”
The only text alert from TEMA that reached anyone was a notice sent hours after the fire began, asking residents to stay off their cellphones. TEMA spokesman Dean Flener said that request helped and seemed to open cellphone access for emergency personnel.
Several people calling 911 in the early hours were told there was no evacuation at that time and that officers would come to their door if they were in danger. But the calls became more urgent as the fire spread, with callers reporting around 7 p.m. they could see widespread fire.
Dispatchers started advising callers to leave if they could, but there was no widespread mandatory evacuation order.
“If you feel like you’re in danger, you need to go,” one dispatcher said. “We’ve got fires burning all over the county.”
The fire began to pick up speed as 7 p.m. approached.
“High winds had now pushed throughout the city, raining embers, causing trees and power lines to fall and fire to spread,” the post-fire summary report states. “Numerous calls were received from brush and structure fires in various parts of the city and county areas.”
Officials were told to activate a flood warning siren system to get the public’s attention. They also began widespread evacuations.