Judge Allows Great Smoky Mountains Wildfire Lawsuits to Move Forward

U.S. park officials have failed to show enough was done to keep the public updated as a deadly wildfire spread from Great Smoky Mountains National Park in 2016, a judge ruled.

The decision earlier this month by U.S. District Judge Ronnie Greer in Knoxville keeps lawsuits by survivors of the blaze on track for a potential trial, though the U.S. Justice Department can still appeal.

Greer denied the government’s motion to dismiss the case, writing that officials didn’t provide sufficient evidence to show they met the notification obligations under their own fire management plan. The fire killed 14 people and caused an estimated $2 billion in losses, including about 2,500 buildings that were damaged or destroyed.

Earlier, a different judge declined an initial motion to dismiss the case after the Justice Department argued that citizens don’t have the legal right to challenge how government workers chose to handle the fire, because those decisions are “discretionary.” That judge ruled the National Park Service’s own plan made warning residents and leaders mandatory, not discretionary.

The case was reassigned to Greer, who then considered the government’s argument that even if the park’s plan included required actions, park officials met those requirements, and the case should be dismissed.

Greer, in turn, ruled the government “has not entered into the record any evidence that could satisfy the requirement to notify Park Neighbors, Park visitors, and local residents of `all planned and unplanned fire management activities that have the potential to impact them.”’

The decision drew praise from a lead attorney in the lawsuit.

“We are very pleased with the Court’s decision,” plaintiffs attorney Ted Leopold said in a statement. “We can now focus on moving forward in this important litigation and working hard to bring justice to the Gatlinburg community.”

The judge wrote that though officials cited the news releases and an e-blast they distributed, they didn’t say where exactly those notices were sent. The judge also said the park didn’t meet the standard by posting information on websites and social media accounts. And finally, the judge wrote that testimony is lacking from the people involved in communications cited between the park’s leadership and city of Gatlinburg officials.

The fire began as less than half an acre in a remote section of the park. Ultimately, hurricane-force winds blew embers from the park into Gatlinburg and the gusts downed power lines, sparking more fires.