(TNS) - Firefighters from across the state flocking to Gatlinburg to battle a growing firestorm couldn't be sure the fire hydrants they uncapped would provide any water.
And within two hours of the mega wildfire reaching the city on Nov. 28, the hydrants were running dry.
"Water loss occurred in certain areas as early as 8:30 p.m. due to the fact that the intermittent power outages caused interruptions to the pumping stations," Gatlinburg Fire Chief Greg Miller wrote in response to emailed questions.
"This causes a loss of water pressure at different areas of the city at different times during the event. This issue persisted throughout the evening and overnight of Nov. 28."
Miller estimated firefighters used about 8 million gallons of water before releasing the last of the visiting firefighters at 7 p.m. Dec. 5.
About 200 firefighters responded Nov. 28 to mutual aid requests issued by Miller. Firefighters brought various types of fire apparatus to the city that was besieged by flames swept in from the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and additional fires ignited when wind toppled trees into power lines.
Miller said that throughout the disaster 153 fire departments across the state provided 259 fire vehicles and 996 firefighters.
Miller's first request for more firefighters went out shortly before noon when the chief asked firefighters from all of Sevier County to help. At 2:30 p.m., Miller increased that mutual aid request to a regional plea for additional firefighters.
Shortly before 6 p.m., winds increasing in speed blew flames from the National Park into the city, igniting about 20 structures. Those flames had spread 5.5 miles throughout the day from the Chimney Tops 2 fire in the National Park. At 6:30 p.m., the fire chief widened his mutual aid request to the entire state.
Fire departments in Knox County "probably sent the lion's share of firefighters and equipment initially, " said Rural/Metro Fire Chief Jerry Harnish. In addition to Rural/Metro, the Knoxville Fire Department and Karns Volunteer Fire Department responded to Gatlinburg.
Winds that by 9 p.m. were tracked at 87 mph at a weather station on Cove Mountain were creating fires across the area. Trees were uprooted and fell onto power lines, igniting the trees or sparking flammable debris on the drought-stricken ground.
The high winds sparking fires from power lines were blamed for the 18 structures burned in Pigeon Forge. In Gatlinburg, 1,137 residential or commercial structures caught fire from the fractured power lines and the flames sweeping in from the National Park. In Sevier County, 1,305 structures were destroyed or damaged by blazes caused by downed power lines and flames that originated in the park.
"Firefighters were forced to retreat from or seek shelter in areas due to extreme fire conditions," Miller said. "It is accurate to state that if firefighters were in an area fighting fire, and they lost the supply of water, they would be forced to retreat to another area with a functioning hydrant in order to refill the tank on the apparatus."
Because the water disruptions occurred in different areas at different times and firefighters were arriving to help throughout the night, Miller said he was unable to estimate how many firefighters encountered dwindling water output.
"All response efforts of November 28 were extremely dangerous due to the fire conditions, wind, falling trees and power lines," the chief said. "It is accurate to say that the water challenges that were created added to the level of danger and difficulty."
Miller said that in addition to power outages to pumping stations, "water used in firefighting from fire hydrants and loss of water from burned structures" contributed to the water supply issues. Utility workers eventually shut off water supply lines to burned structures, where flames had melted fittings on water lines, allowing water to flow uncontrollably.
Dale Phelps, manager of Gatlinburg Utilities, said the pumping stations that failed either lost electrical service because of the flames or the roof or the entire structure enclosing the stations burned. Those stations are located in the Kings Ridge and Forest Springs areas in Gatlinburg, he said.
One station pumps 70 gallons of water per minute, Phelps said, while the other provides 140 gallons per minute.
Phelps said temporary pumps were installed Dec. 9 at the two locations and the stations "are being reconstructed with fire-resistant materials."
Phelps and city officials did not respond to questions about why the pumping stations didn't have auxiliary power supplies such as generators. Officials also ignored inquiries if generators will be installed in the future at the pumping stations.
A third pumping station owned by Gatlinburg but located in Pigeon Forge also failed, according to Pigeon Forge Public Works Director Mark Miller. The roof on that pumping station burned and lost power.
Mark Miller said Pigeon Forge workers installed a new roof and reconnected electrical service to get the station back on line. Pigeon Forge supplies Gatlinburg about 1.5 million gallons of water daily, he said.
Knoxville Fire Chief Stan Sharp said he sent two waves of firefighters and equipment after Greg Miller issued mutual aid requests. The first group of resources, Sharp said, was designed to help stop the wildland fires. The second grouping was outfitted to battle structure fires.
"At that point, we knew they had structure fires and not just a wildfire," Sharp said. On Nov. 28, Sharp sent 30 firefighters, six fire apparatus and three chiefs in SUVs.
"In total, we had a little more than 100 firefighters up there," Sharp said. His firefighters tallied an estimated 1,500 hours of work.
Sharp said some resources remained in Gatlinburg through Dec. 4 helping with victim searches, but the majority of his firefighters and equipment returned Dec. 1 to Knoxville.
Sharp was aware of water supply problems for firefighters, but none of his emergency workers were placed in danger by running out of water at crucial times.
Winds were driving flames so violently, firefighters didn't try to save burning structures, he said.
"Mostly, if there was a building on fire, you tried to keep it from spreading to the next building," Sharp said.
Sharp said the commander of the units that responded to Gatlinburg had few words to describe what they encountered.
"His only comment is it was absolutely horrific," Sharp said.
Harnish, with Rural/Metro Fire Department of Knox County, said his first units were deployed to protect the Sugarlands Visitor Center in the National Park from flames. The Rural/Metro team was helped by fire units from the Karns Volunteer Fire Department and the Knoxville Fire Department.
After successfully staving off flames from the visitor center, Harnish said the Rural/Metro team was sent to an assignment across town. While traveling east on U.S. Highway 321, also called East Parkway, the firefighters recorded a 40-second video of the fiery landscape.
"There are buildings on fire on either side of the road, some with firefighters at the burning buildings and others just burning," Harnish said. "It's jaw-dropping."
At that point in the night, fire was so widespread, the winds so strong, firefighters "were just trying to keep the evacuation routes open by keeping fire off the road," Harnish said.
Fires moving along East Parkway in east Gatlinburg were racing toward the city's administrative offices at 1230 E. Parkway. That's also where offices for the police and fire departments are located. And that's where Greg Miller, incident commander over the disaster, had established his command post earlier in the day at the main fire hall.
"It is yet to be determined if the fire in the eastern corridor on Highway 321 toward City Hall was the actual Chimney 2 fire progression or a separate fire caused by another ignition source," Greg Miller said. "The fire was burning rapidly out East Parkway."
Fires already had burned the area where the city's Service Center is located on Newman Road, west of the command post. Trolleys used for evacuation efforts were staged on Reagan Drive. City-owned trolleys not engaged in evacuations were parked in a lot beside the city's Street Department and Service Center, Greg Miller said.
When flames struck Newman Road, three trolleys, one mass transit staff vehicle and "several personal vehicles were damaged by fire or debris, Greg Miller said. Employees at 4 a.m. relocated the trolleys to a vacant lot at the intersection of Glades Road and U.S. Highway 321.
The Sevier County prosecutor announced Dec. 7 that two juveniles, ages 15 and 17, had been charged with aggravated arson in connection with starting the Chimney Tops 2 fire on Nov. 23. The 1.5-acre fire discovered Nov. 23 eventually covered more than 17,000 acres after high winds five days later drove flames into Gatlinburg and Sevier County.
Authorities have blamed the deaths of 14 people on the Nov. 28 fires. Relatives of victims have indicated some died getting caught in fires while trying to flee the area, while others may have been seeking refuge from the fast-moving flames.
Officials have declined to divulge details of when, where and under what circumstances the 14 people died because of the pending juvenile charges.
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