Special Report: The Gatlinburg fire - could it happen in Asheville?
ASHEVILLE, N.C. (WLOS) —
On Nov. 28, 2016, extreme drought conditions and wind gusts in excess of 50 mph fanned the flames of the Chimney Tops 2 Fire in Great Smoky Mountain National Park. Embers were carried miles north as the fire exploded in size and overtook the towns of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge.
The blaze killed 14 people and destroyed more than 2,000 structures in the deadliest wildfire in the Eastern United States since 1947.
But, could the same explosive fire behavior happen in a larger city like Asheville?
"Here's the important thing to remember. Everybody thinks the big wildfires only happen out west. They happen here, too," Michael Cheek, the assistant regional forester with the North Carolina Forest Service, said. "North Carolina is in the top five in most all categories of the wildland, urban interface. The amount of homes in the woods."
Gatlinburg is about 55 miles from Asheville, as the crow flies, but it is a much smaller town with far less urban development.
"Obviously, one of the big differences is what surrounds us," Asheville Assistant Fire Chief of Operations Barry Hendren said. "Our community is very well developed, whereas in Gatlinburg, national park surrounds the town."
A larger city equates to more tax dollars for public services, which means more fire departments and resources.
"We have a very robust fire department," Hendren said. "We have 65 firefighters on duty every day. We have a tremendous amount of mutual aid support from the fire departments that surround us. So, because of the development, there is much more access to fires, to get to a fire, to control it quicker so it doesn't spread and build as rapidly as what we saw in Gatlinburg."
To compare, when mutual aid was called in for the Chimney Tops Two fire the day it exploded in size, about 80 people were expected to be on hand.
The mutual aid assistance from nearby communities and the forest service allows fires around Asheville to be controlled very quickly.
"They're all dispatched from the same place, so it's very quick, you know," Jerry Vehaun, the Emergency Services director for Buncombe County, said. "For example, if it's something in the city, we would know it since we dispatch them. But as soon as they call for mutual aid, we've got a pre-plan where we would send certain fire departments to certain areas and then be able to back up their stations. If it's something in the county, we can call on the city as well as the other county departments and everybody responds at the same time."
So, the probability of a large fire spreading in and around Asheville is much lower. But, if a fire defies the odds and a rapid evacuation is necessary, is the city ready?
Gatlinburg residents never received evacuation notices on their cell phones. The only warning went out over the Emergency Alert System on television and radio.
Asheville is equipped with reverse 911, but it only works for landlines. In order for Asheville residents to receive evacuation notices on their mobile phones, they need to sign up for Citizens Alert, a rapid mass notification system.
"But it always comes back to having to go door to door, also, to make sure that you contacted every residence and every business," Vehaun said.
While the risk for a large enveloping fire is indeed lower in Asheville, other Western North Carolina cities and towns carry a higher risk.
Few towns know this better than Chimney Rock, where the Party Rock fire burned more than 7,000 acres in November 2016.
"We were very fortunate," Chimney Rock Mayor Peter O'Leary said. "We didn't realize how fortunate at the time until Gatlinburg happened, and all of the experts told us you know that we just, Gatlinburg had a set of circumstances that we didn't have, but we could've had."
With drought conditions continuing into spring, residents in or near wooded areas are reminded to stay vigilant and develop a plan just in case.
"There's always that option," Cheek said. "With the right weather conditions, we're going to have big fires in Western North Carolina.
If residents would like to make their properties less prone to fire, they are encouraged to visit firewise.org.