KNOXVILLE — A lawsuit filed Wednesday on behalf of two people impacted by the deadly 2016 wildfires in Gatlinburg, including a man who lost his wife and two daughters in the inferno, is holding the federal government responsible and seeking $14.8 million in damages.
The suit, filed in Knoxville’s U.S. District Court on behalf of Gatlinburg residents Michael Reed and James England Jr., accuses National Park Service employees — namely Great Smoky Mountains National Park Fire Management Officer Greg Salansky — of allowing the initial fire in GSMNP to spread.
When park officials discovered the blaze on Nov. 23, 2016, it covered less than 2 acres near the summit of the Chimney Tops Trail. Extreme drought conditions and significantly high winds had it rolling into Gatlinburg five days later.
Gatlinburg and parts of Sevier County were ravaged. Officials said 14 people were killed and about 2,500 buildings damaged or destroyed.
The lawsuit takes aim at Salansky and senior park leadership for a decision to contain the initial “Chimney Tops 2” fire instead of extinguishing it.
“Numerous experienced wildland firefighters have opined The Chimney Tops 2 Fire could have been — and should have been — suppressed immediately,” according to the lawsuit.
The lawsuit also states Salansky and park leaders were “unprepared” and “unqualified” for dealing with such a fire. It notes the National Park Review Team, which investigated the park’s response, did not issue a glowing report.
That report identified a lack of preparedness during a period of drought conditions as something that “overwhelmed” the park’s response. The report also concluded that “inaction, understaffing and a failure to appreciate the danger led to a response that violated NPS fire management policies,” the suit states.
Both plaintiffs’ homes were destroyed in the blaze. Michael Reed’s wife, Constance, and their two children, Chloe, 12, and Lily, 9, died trying to escape the swift-moving fires.
England is seeking $1.3 million for property damage, which includes the destruction of his home and vehicle. Reed is asking for $13.5 million for damages, including loss of life and property.
Authorities said two teenagers started the initial fire in the park. While Sevier County authorities filed charges of aggravated arson, they later were dropped.
Sevier County District Attorney General Jimmy Dunn said that was because other factors contributed to the deadly wildfires, including high winds and downed power lines.