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Judge denies dismissal of 2016 Gatlinburg wildfire lawsuit, jury trial may proceed

According to the lawsuit, “The United States failed to carry that burden because it did not provide evidence showing that it performed required conduct.”
Fanned by strong winds and the Southeast's worst drought in nearly a decade, at least 14 fires burned in and around Gatlinburg, Tennessee, forcing evacuations from the popular tourist gateway and nearby communities. On Monday afternoon, a wildfire from the Great Smoky Mountains National Park spread rapidly into communities around it. By early Tuesday, emergency officials said about 100 homes were affected by the blaze.
Fanned by strong winds and the Southeast's worst drought in nearly a decade, at least 14 fires burned in and around Gatlinburg, Tennessee, forcing evacuations from the popular tourist gateway and nearby communities. On Monday afternoon, a wildfire from the Great Smoky Mountains National Park spread rapidly into communities around it. By early Tuesday, emergency officials said about 100 homes were affected by the blaze.(WDTV)
Published: Sep. 9, 2020 at 11:50 AM EDT
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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WVLT) - A federal judge has ruled the National Park Service may hold some financial responsibility for failing to inform Gatlinburg residents of details associated with the wildfires that ravaged the area in 2016.

According to the lawsuit, “The United States failed to carry that burden because it did not provide evidence showing that it performed required conduct.”

U.S. District Judge Ronnie Greer denied the National Park Service’s request to dismiss the lawsuit filed by survivors of the 2016 Gatlinburg wildfires.

Greer stated the National Park Service failed to notify park neighbors, visitors and local residents of all planned and unplanned fire management activities that had the potential to impact them.

During the fires, nearly 2,500 homes were destroyed estimating to $2 billion in damages. Officials said the fires claimed the lives of 14 individuals.

Greer said Park Fire Management Officer Greg Salansky did not warn Gatlinburg officials of the threat of the fire until Nov. 28, five days after the fire had started. According to the lawsuit, Salansky informed individuals of the threat of the fire on Nov. 28 in an E-Blast press release and social media releases.

Officials said the email press release was only sent “to the Park’s list of press release recipients, which included more than 50 media outlets, 25 government entities, 50 private organizations, and other individuals.” Greer ruled the emailed press release did not satisfy the requirement to notify “Park Neighbors, Park visitors, and local residents.”

The judged deemed the social media posts as unreliable as well stating, “The information posted on the websites gave notice to the visitors of the Park’s website, the Instagram posts may have given notice to the people who follow the Park on Instagram, etc. But posting information on websites and social media accounts is not the same as notifying Park neighbors, Park visitors and local residents . . . of all planned and unplanned fire management activities that have the potential to impact them.”

Greer denied the request to dismiss the trial because the National Park Service did not provide any evidence that could satisfy the requirement to notify those who would be impacted by the fire, which they are required to do under the Fire Management Plan.

With Judge Greer’s ruling, a jury trial in the case may proceed.

Copyright 2020 WVLT. All rights reserved.

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