NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Although Tennessee's top forestry official said he regrets the loss of lives and property in last year's wildfires, he argued Wednesday that firefighters did as much as they could to contain the blaze.
The November fire started in the remote Chimney Tops area of Great Smoky Mountains National Park and was carried by strong winds into the vacation town of Gatlinburg, killing 14 people and tearing through thousands of homes and businesses.
Many residents were caught off guard by the rapidly approaching flames.
State Forester Jere Jeter said at a press conference that in response to the experience fighting fires during a prolonged drought, his agency is ramping up training and replacing outdated mobile phones to ensure firefighters have access to online maps. But Jeter told reporters that he doesn't think extra training would have changed the outcome of the Gatlinburg fire.
"I don't know that it would have made any difference in these conditions," Jeter said. "You have fire conditions that are so erratic and so atypical for the eastern U.S., driven by 80-90 mph (129-145 kph) winds.
"Then you've just got a situation that I'm just thankful that more people didn't lose their lives," he said.
On balance, Jeter said, he was satisfied with the efforts of state firefighters.
"For the size of our agency, for our mission, the responsibilities that we had, I think our efforts there were successful," he said.
"At the same time we've had all these losses, I certainly don't mean to diminish that at all."
Jeter ephasized that his agency has no authority over whether or when to call for an evacuation.
"It's simply beyond our jurisdiction and span of control," he said. "We simply don't do that."