Judge OKs public release of withheld records on Sevier County wildfire

State officials kept secret for weeks a judge’s ruling that government records on the handling of the deadly Sevier County wildfire could be released to the public, reports the News Sentinel, which obtained a copy by asking the judge and court clerk.

The order by Juvenile and General Sessions Judge Jeff Rader, filed June 5, came in response to the state attorney general’s request for clarification on what records the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency could release about the fire that killed 14 people.

…The judge, who will hear the case of the two teenagers accused of setting the blaze, said a gag order issued in the case applied only to prosecutors, defense lawyers and court officials – and to no one else.

The Tennessee Emergency Management Agency and various other agencies have cited the case for months in refusing to release records of the response to the wildfire. TEMA spokesman Dean Flener indicated the agency will comply with the ruling. He offered no timetable.

Continue reading

12 TN counties covered by fed disaster declaration from May storms

News release from Tennessee Emergency Management Agency

Nashville, Tenn. – Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam announced (Friday) evening 12 counties will receive federal aid assistance through a Presidential Disaster Declaration as the recovery process continues in several areas from the severe storms and straight-line winds of May 27, and May 28, 2017.

“Local, state, and federal partners came together in a collaborative effort to assess impacts rapidly so we could have accurate storm damage data and illustrate our need for a disaster declaration to President Trump,” Haslam said. “I am grateful to all the first responders, emergency managers, and community members who have united to help others recover from the impact of these storms.”

Tennessee counties included in the Presidential Declaration are:  Blount, Cumberland, Fayette, Knox, Loudon, Morgan, Putnam, Rhea, Roane, Sevier, Shelby, and Smith.

Continue reading

Memphis storm damage pegged at $17M — enough to qualify for fed disaster funding

Memphis officials now estimate damages from last weekend’s severe storm at more than $17 million, well over the $9 million threshold that could trigger a federal disaster declaration leading to reimbursement of up to 80 percent of funds spend on repairs, reports the Commercial Appeal.

In early estimates, the city plans to spend $9.97 million on the storm cleanup, mostly to remove debris and repair public facilities, while MLGW (Memphis Light Gas and Water) plans to spend $7 million clearing debris and restoring service.

Continue reading

Two wildfire response bills clear Senate

News release from Senate Republican Caucus

NASHVILLE — Two bills designed to help Sevier County rebound from the devastating November wildfires passed unanimously in the State Senate on Monday. Senate Bill 964, sponsored by Senator Doug Overbey (R-Maryville) gives local governments the authority to go on private property at the request of the property owner to clean up debris. Senate Bill 114, sponsored by Sen. Overbey, Senator Steve Southerland (R-Morristown) and Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville), allows a local governing body, by a two-thirds vote, to provide tax relief on real and personal property damaged by the wildfire.

Continue reading

Sevier County designated disaster area for federal aid

News release from Tennessee Emergency Management Agency

Nashville, Tenn. – Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam announced this evening (Thursday) Sevier County will receive federal aid assistance through a Presidential Disaster Declaration as the county begins its recovery from the devastating wildfires of Nov. 28, 2016.

“This deadly wildfire required a coordinated response from many individuals and organizations,” Haslam said. “The outpouring of care, relief, and support from around the world for Sevier County and its people has been extraordinary.  This assistance from the federal government will help relieve some of the financial burden of this disaster on Tennesseans and Sevier County.”

In his federal disaster assistance request of President Obama on Dec. 9, 2016, Gov. Haslam also asked for the disaster declaration to include four counties – Coffee, McMinn, Polk, and Sequatchie – hit with severe weather and tornadoes on Nov. 29, 2016.

Continue reading

Haslam seeks federal aid in repairing wildfire, storm damage

News release from the governor’s office

NASHVILLE – Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam today sent a request to President Barack Obama to expedite a major disaster declaration for five Tennessee counties in order to get needed federal assistance to aid in recovery from wildfires and severe storms.

The counties included in Haslam’s declaration request are Coffee, McMinn, Polk, Sequatchie and Sevier.

“My goal is to help ensure these counties have what they need to rebuild and recover from these heartbreaking disasters,” Haslam said. “The state and our local partners continue to work through the damage assessments, provide necessary services to help those in need, and get our neighbors and friends back on their feet.”

A presidential disaster declaration could help the five counties with costs for debris removal, emergency protective measures, and rebuilding and repairing roads, bridges, water control facilities, buildings, utilities and recreational facilities. A federal disaster declaration, if awarded, may also help qualifying individuals with direct assistance.

Additional information about state and federal assistance, should it be granted, will be released when details are available.

On Nov. 28, wildfires rapidly spread through Sevier County, causing mandatory evacuations of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge. The wildfires caused 14 fatalities and damaged or destroyed more than 2,200 structures in Sevier County.

Overnight on Nov. 29, five tornadoes touched down in Tennessee with two weather-related fatalities in Polk County.

UPDATE/Note: The state’s congressional delegation has written a letter in support of the governor’s request. It’s below.

Joint news release from Tennessee members of Congress:

WASHINGTON – Members of Tennessee’s Congressional delegation today urged President Obama to quickly approve Governor Haslam’s request for a major disaster declaration for the State of Tennessee to help five Tennessee counties impacted by wildfires and severe weather in November rebuild and recover.

“Governor Bill Haslam has submitted a request for Public Assistance and Individual Assistance for Sevier County, which was affected by wildfires and for Coffee, McMinn, Polk and Sequatchie counties which were affected by severe weather and tornadoes,” the members wrote President Obama in a letter. “We strongly urge you to approve Governor Haslam’s request, and we hope you will consider our State’s request as soon as possible.”

The letter was signed by Senators Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker and Representatives Diane Black, Marsha Blackburn, Steve Cohen, Jim Cooper, Scott DesJarlais, John Duncan, Stephen Fincher, Chuck Fleischmann and Phil Roe.

The full text of the letter:

Dear Mr. President:

On behalf of the State of Tennessee, we are writing to support Governor Bill Haslam’s request to declare a major disaster pursuant to the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief Act as a result of the severe wildfires and tornadoes that impacted our state beginning November 28, 2016.

Governor Bill Haslam has submitted a request for Public Assistance and Individual Assistance for Sevier County, which was affected by wildfires and for Coffee, McMinn, Polk and Sequatchie counties which were affected by severe weather and tornadoes. We strongly urge you to approve Governor Haslam’s request, and we hope you will consider our State’s request as soon as possible.

The severe wildfires that swept through Sevier County, Tennessee beginning November 28, required the evacuation of over 14,000 residents and visitors and led to 14 fatalities and 134 reported injuries. The wildfires damaged or destroyed over 2,200 homes, businesses and other structures. At its peak, the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency estimated that over 1,300 people occupied six Red Cross and independently-operated shelters.

The severe weather that impacted 10 counties in East Tennessee on November 29, produced 5 tornadoes and led to 4 fatalities and 12 reported injuries. The severe weather caused structural damage and downed powerlines throughout East Tennessee, especially in Coffee, McMinn, Polk and Sequatchie counties.

The Tennessee Emergency Management Agency has been working with the Federal Emergency Management Agency since the beginning of these incidents, and we are grateful for their efforts to respond to Tennessee’s needs. Our offices can provide you with any additional information should you have any questions.


Two juveniles charged with setting Sevier County wildfires

News release from Tennessee Bureau of Investigation

KNOXVILLE– An investigation by Special Agents with the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, National Park Service, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) and the Sevier County Sheriff’s Office has resulted in charges being placed against two people in connection with the deadly wildfires in Sevier County.

Last week, at the request of 4th District Attorney General James Dunn, TBI Special Agents began working alongside the National Park Service and ATF to investigate the wildfires that began last month.

During the course of the investigation, information was developed that two juveniles allegedly started the fire.

Today, a petition was filed in juvenile court charging the juveniles with Aggravated Arson. Both were taken into custody and transported to the Sevier County Juvenile Detention Center. At this time the investigation is active and ongoing.

UPDATE: Further from the News Sentinel:

The teens remain in custody in Sevier County, charged with aggravated arson, said Jimmy Dunn, 4th Judicial District attorney general. They await a bond hearing in Juvenile Court and could be transferred to Criminal Court if prosecutors move to try them as adults.

“Everything is on the table,” Dunn said.

He refused to give any details about the case, including the teens’ ages or genders, except that “They are not from Sevier County … they are residents of Tennessee.”

The park lies within federal jurisdiction, but federal prosecutors will allow Dunn to prosecute the case in state court.

…Dunn said the two suspects will have a detention hearing “within the next 72 hours.” The hearing will determine if the two will be held without bond, with bond or released.

Haslam: Find out what happened with failure of wildfire notification system

Gov.  Bill Haslam’s response Monday to reporter questions on reports that Sevier County officials failed to alert people about the need to evacuate prior to the wildfires last week that killed 14 people and left thousands homeless in Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge, as reported in the News Sentinel:

“We talked a little bit about that this morning in terms of when the notice went out, what happened, how much was impacted by cell towers going down (and) how much was impacted by people who had phones that weren’t capable of receiving the messages,” Haslam said… “So I think that’s what you’ll see both the local emergency management people and our folks saying is, ‘What happened, and how can we make certain that in the future that everybody gets the notification that they need?’ “

Haslam stopped short of saying he thought officials waited too long to attempt to send out an evacuation alert.

“Don’t lose the fact that a lot of people have done incredible work,” he said. “… I wasn’t at their command center, so I don’t know how they made those decisions, but this was a pretty unprecedented storm, and a lot of things had to come together in a wrong way to make this happen. … We will take the time and local officials will, too, to go back and say what we could have done better.”

On communication failures in Gatlinburg wildfires

Sevier County officials admit they never issued a mobile evacuation alert ahead of the wildfire that swept through town and killed 13 people, reports the News Sentinel. The “communication failure” is blamed on the weather.

The article’s review of events leading up to the widespread destruction in Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge also indicates there may have been some misinformation. Many residents and visitors to the tourist town have complained they received no mobile alert notification to evacuate the city Monday night.

(Initial media) briefings included announcements that downplayed the threat from the fire. At 5 p.m. Monday, the city issued a news release to local media that flames had not threatened any structures. More than five hours earlier, the National Weather Service had issued an alert that “strong gusty winds will develop today and persist overnight.”

By 6 p.m. Monday — barely an hour after the city’s initial news release — more than 20 buildings were ablaze as winds that approached 90 mph whipped embers onto city structures and toppled power lines.

…(T)he command center  contacted TEMA at 8:30 p.m. to request a mandatory evacuation order be transmitted to mobile devices over the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System. Officials said that conversation was disrupted by the loss of communications

Emergency officials didn’t use a statewide Motorola radio communications system when other communications options failed. The Motorola radio system, which cost more than $100 million, is used by the Department of Safety and Homeland Security and several counties in East Tennessee. Sevier isn’t one of those counties.

TEMA Friday afternoon update: Wildfire fatalities now at 13, tornado deaths at 4

Here is a Friday update from the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency on the Sevier County fires and southeast Tennessee tornadoes:

December 2, 2016 – 1 p.m., Central



  • Gatlinburg officials are allowing residents, business owners, and property owners into the city today, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Eastern, to check on the status of their structures.
  • The Tennessee Department of Health has confirmed (13) wildfire fatalities in Sevier County.
  • The Tennessee Department of Health (TDH) has confirmed four (4) weather-related fatalities: two (2) fatalities in Polk County, and two (2) fatalities in Meigs County.

Continue reading


Posts and Opinions about Tennessee politics, government, and legislative news.