Man Who Lost Wife and Daughters in Gatlinburg Fire Sues Park Service For $14 million

A man who lost his wife and two daughters in the devastating wildland fire that tore through Gatlinburg, Tennessee in 2016, has filed a $14 million lawsuit against the National Park Service claiming negligence by its supervisors allowed the fire to grow to an uncontrollable size. Michael B. Reed filed suit last week in US District Court for the Eastern District of Tennessee naming the United States of America as the sole defendant.

Reed’s wife Constance and their his two daughters, Chloe, 12, and Lillian, 9, died on November 28, 2016 when the so-called Chimney Tops 2 fire overran their neighborhood. The suit accuses the National Park Service of negligence and wrongful death. Joining Reed in the complaint as a plaintiff was another Gatlinburg resident, James L. England, Jr., who lost his home in the fire. The suit seeks in excess of $15 million in damages between the two plaintiffs.

The complaint is exceptionally well written and for those interested in the details of the fire, it offers a very good read. It is 148 pages with 410 numbered paragraphs! Here is a quick overview of the essence of Reed’s claims:

  • The fire was initially discovered as less than a single acre in size by Greg Salansky, Fire Management Officer (FMO) of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GSMNP) on Wednesday, November 23, 2016.
  • While Salansky and other Park officials believed the small and smoldering fire would be controlled inside the Park, eighty (80)-years of built-up ground fuels, months of severe drought conditions and a Saturday morning, November 26, 2016 National Weather Service (“NWS”) forecast of high-winds foretold a substantial change in The Chimney Tops 2 Fire’s behavior.
  • The conditions, especially the high-wind forecast, should have served as “a call-to-action” for Park officials.
  • But FMO Salansky, who had taken complete and unfettered command-control of The Chimney Tops 2 Fire, not only failed to monitor the fire for five consecutive nights, but also failed to initiate any direct-attack to suppress the fire, opting instead to treat the fire as a “prescribed” burn, letting it burn inside a poorly designed and negligently implemented 410-acre “containment box.”
  • After five days of nesting deep in duff, growing in size and strength, the highwinds came (as predicted) on Monday, November 28, 2016, and The Chimney Tops 2 Fire rolled down the mountain, creating what Gatlinburg Fire Department (“GFD”) Chief Greg Miller (“Chief Miller”) called “an ember storm.”
  • By 6:00 p.m. that evening, The Chimney Tops 2 Fire had escaped the Park, and hurricane-force winds pushed it north toward Gatlinburg.
  • In a matter of hours, the fire had swollen from 70 acres to 17,000 acres, ultimately resulting in fourteen (14) deaths, including the lives of Plaintiff MICHAEL B. REED’S wife and two minor daughters, and one-hundred and ninety-one (191) injuries, along with well over $1 billion in insurance claims.
  • In a span of only six to eight hours, The Chimney Tops 2 Fire damaged or destroying [sic] more than two-thousand five-hundred (2,500) homes, buildings, or other structures, along with their contents, including the homes and contents of Plaintiff MICHAEL B. REED and Plaintiff JAMES L. ENGLAND, becoming one the largest natural disasters in the history of Tennessee and the deadliest wildfire in the Eastern United States since the Great Fires of 1947, which killed 16 people in Maine.

Here is a copy of the complaint: Reed v USA COMPLAINT

For those interested in a more in depth look at the factual allegations in the case without reading the entire complaint:

  • On November 22, 2016, the NWS declared Gatlinburg and the GSMNP to be in an “extreme” and “exceptional” drought condition. The drought had already spawned fires consuming about 44,000 acres in Tennessee, prompting the governor to impose a fireban in the eastern half of the state.
  • The following day, Wednesday, November 23, 2016, at about 5:20 p.m., a slow-moving fire of less than an acre was discovered by FMO Salansky near the top of the Chimney Tops Trail. After scouting the fire, Salansky decided the fire should be contained, not extinguished, as the rocky, steep terrain presented a safety risk to firefighters.
  • Salansky and the Park’s senior leadership ultimately developed a plan to “contain” the fire (hereinafter, “The Chimney Tops 2 Fire”) inside a 410-acre indirect-attack “box” (“containment box”) utilizing natural features, including trails and a nearby creek, and constructed fire-lines, to“hold the fire.” From the outset, however, the plan’s likelihood of success “was very low.”
  • In the end, events of the succeeding five days demonstrated the plan devised by Salansky was a debacle of historic proportions, made worse by innumerable and repeated failures by Salansky and Park officials to adhere to settled fire-management policies. These failures notably included their blatant disregard of mandatory requirements to monitor The Chimney Tops 2 Fire for five consecutive days and their failure to notify or warn local governments, Park neighbors, local residents and visitors of the absolute and imminent danger the fire posed to them and the surrounding area.
  • Salansky, already functioning as both the Zone FMO7 and the Park FMO, exacerbated an already precarious situation by disregarding settled fire policy and anointing himself as both The Chimney Tops 2 Fire’s Incident Commander (“IC”) and Duty Officer (“DO”) and by failing to assign a separate Safety Officer. This self-anointment grossly undermined the fire-command structure that was intended to ensure policy oversight.
  • Salansky also inexplicably failed not only to request additional funding for resources for the unprecedented and extraordinary fire season, but also to recall personnel on-leave for the Thanksgiving holiday, leaving a critical shortage of fire personnel and resources.
  • For five consecutive nights – from Wednesday, November 23, 2016 through Sunday, November 27, 2016 – Salansky and Park officials abandoned The Chimney Tops 2 Fire in the overnight hours, leaving it un-monitored and unattended, only to discover the succeeding mornings that the fire had grown to two acres, then to six acres, then to eight acres, then to ten acres, then to between thirty-five (35) and fifty (50) acres, and as the winds increased, eventually spreading out-of-control on Sunday, November 27, 2016 to 250-500 acres.
  • For those same five consecutive nights, Salansky and Park officials failed to notify or warn Gatlinburg officials, Park neighbors, local residents and visitors about the imminent danger posed by The Chimney Tops 2 Fire.
  • By early Saturday, November 26, 2016, Salansky had received a NWS Special Weather Alert warning of high-winds and rain for Monday, November 28, 2016. From the moment rain was predicted for Monday, instead of using available air-resources and more aggressive suppression-efforts on the ground to extinguish the fire, Salansky allowed “hope for rain” to become part of his strategy to contain the fire.
  • By Sunday, November 27, 2016, The Chimney Tops 2 Fire was “active on all flanks.” Only then did Salansky finally appear to see the fire’s potential danger, ordering additional resources, e.g., helicopters, air-attack, crew module, engines, etc. Yet, Salansky, wearing all of five critical fire-decision-making hats, again failed to monitor the fire in the overnight hours and completely failed to communicate the danger to Park neighbors, including local officials in Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge and elsewhere in Sevier County, as well as local residents and visitors. Such a warning would have allowed for significant steps to be taken to prepare for The Chimney Tops 2 Fire.
  • By Monday morning, November 28, 2016, the Chimney Tops 2 Fire had expanded to as much as 500 acres, spread to the Chimney Picnic Area outside of the “containment box,” and began the long-range ignition of spot fires. Shortly thereafter, The Chimney Tops 2 Fire also threatened the Park’s Headquarters, historical structures, and a residential area known as Mynatt Park.
  • By about 6:00 p.m., The Chimney Tops 2 Fire had breached the Park’s boundary and near-hurricane force winds carried it from the Park across a three-mile Park interface into numerous Gatlinburg neighborhoods, eventually reaching the southern edge of Pigeon Forge.
  • According to the team of experts hired by Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge, the most critical failure of all during The Chimney Tops 2 Fire was the complete lack of early notice from the Park to local officials, residents and visitors in Sevier County, including Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge. Because of this failure, firefighters had no advance warning of the fire until late-Monday morning, November 28, 2016, when a GFD captain called the Park to ask about the thick smoke pouring into the city. Salansky errantly advised the captain that everything was “under control” and no help was needed. Meanwhile, The Chimney Tops 2 Fire was barreling toward Gatlinburg at speeds that eventually exceeded 2,000 acres per hour, more than half an acre per second.
  • The devastating fire left its mark: 14 deaths, 191 fire-related injuries or illnesses, damage or destruction to about 2,500 homes, buildings and other structures, more than 17,000 acres burned, and nearly a billion dollars in damages.
  • On Monday evening, November 28, 2016, Mr. Reed and [his son] Nicholas had left Constance and the girls at home to drive down Wiley Oakley Drive to the Gatlinburg Welcome Center/National Park Information Center on Highway 441 which cuts through the mountains and connects Gatlinburg to the nearby town of Pigeon Forge. They wanted to learn more about what was happening, to see if they should evacuate.
  • Between 7:30 p.m. and 8:00 p.m., Mr. Reed saw a couple of Park Rangers and asked what was going on. One of the Park Rangers pointed and said, “go to Pigeon Forge.”
  • Meanwhile, Mrs. Reed, at home with her two young daughters, Chloe, 12, and Lily, 9, called her husband. Mr. Reed had taken the family’s only vehicle. Mrs. Reed noticed flames coming from a house across the street from their home. The Chimney Tops 2 Fire had reached their neighborhood, just west of downtown Gatlinburg. A little past 8:00 p.m., Mrs. Reed reached her husband on his cell phone. She told him she could see the flames approaching their house. She asked, “What do I do?”
  • “Call 911,” he said.
  • She did, with her voice trembling, Mrs. Reed told the dispatcher: “The fire is next door to my house . . . . My husband is not home. I don’t have a vehicle, and I have no way out of here. I have no way out, and I have children at home.”
  • The dispatcher responded, “Stay with me.” Then, the line went dead.
  • Seeing her neighbor’s home engulfed in flames, Mrs. Reed and her two young daughters fled, trying to escape. Their home was destroyed.
  • Around the same time, Mr. Reed told his son, “we have to go back up there.”
  • With his left hand on the steering wheel and his right holding his teenage son back in the passenger seat, Mr. Reed drove his Honda Odyssey minivan directly toward the smoke.
  • Driving into the neighborhood, he found all of the houses burning, including his own.
  • Somehow, the two made it up the road but could not reach their driveway, as everything around them was burning.
  • Reed got out of the van and screamed his wife’s name, but there was no answer.
  • Returning to town and hoping the rest of their family had escaped the fire, Mr. Reed and Nicholas made it to the LeConte temporary shelter, where, for two days, Mr. Reed showed everyone he met photos of his wife and two daughters.
  • After escaping their burning home, Mrs. Reed, Chloe and Lilly had taken shelter in a nearby house. But it was too late: the fire caught up with them.
  • Authorities recovered their remains about six days later in a house not too far away from their own.

About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 40 years of fire service experience and 30 as a practicing attorney licensed in both Rhode Island and Maine. His background includes 29 years as a career firefighter in Providence (retiring as a Deputy Assistant Chief), as well as volunteer and paid on call experience. He is the author of two books: Legal Considerations for Fire and Emergency Services, (2006, 2nd ed. 2011, 3rd ed. 2014) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.
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