University of Tennessee professor predicted Gatlinburg wildfire

Arrowmont School of the Arts and Crafts in Gatlinburg (Bill May via WATE)

KNOXVILLE (WATE) – As more questions surround the deadly wildfires in Gatlinburg, some experts are saying it would have been nearly impossible to stop the fire quickly for a number of reasons.

University of Tennessee Professor Henri Grissino-Mayer has spent decades researching wildfires and says he’s been predicting a large wildfire in the Gatlinburg area for years.

Prof. Grissino-Mayer was recently quoted by CNN as saying Gatlinburg was “made to burn.”

“All the right conditions were there,” he said in an interview with WATE 6 On Your Side’s Lori Tucker. “We’re calling it a perfect storm. All of those conditions just came together and created the firestorm we saw.”

He says the drought, near hurricane-force winds, basically continuous fuels from Chimney Tops all the way down to Gatlinburg, and the town itself, while beautiful, right up against the wild land area of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

“It doesn’t help that we have so many things made of wood there,” he said. “I look at those and see houses, I see buildings, but I also see fuel.”

Grissino-Mayer says people who live and work in Gatlinburg need to understand that fire is a common phenomenon in the Gatlinburg area and has been for years. He says he moved to Knoxville 25 years ago and recognized immediately that Gatlinburg was a huge fire danger.

“I saw this right when I got here and I’ve been calling for a greater awareness for probably 15 or 16 years now for the fact that Gatlinburg might be ready to burn,” he said.

Grissino-Mayer says the responses to his warnings were muted.

“We’ve become complacent. The public, the park service, the scientists, everybody that’s familiar with East Tennessee – because we’ve had no fires in a long time. Why? Because we’ve been putting fires out. We took away the ignition sources… so basically the fuel has been building up for about 80 years now.”

He says there needs to be more education and people need to have a greater awareness of all the fire fuel around them.

“I don’t think this was avoidable. This was a perfect storm, and it doesn’t help that we had a human set fire. I hope they find that person, whether it was intentional or unintentional… all it took was one ignition source.”