Judge Rules Tennessee Wildfire Survivors Can Sue National Park Service

2016 Gatlinburg wildfire killed over a dozen people


FILE – In this Nov. 29, 2016, file photo, a structure and vehicle are damaged from the wildfires around Gatlinburg, Tenn. Two survivors of deadly Tennessee wildfires that began in Great Smoky Mountains National Park have sued the federal government, claiming they lost loved ones and a home because of the negligence of park workers. The lawsuit in Knoxville was filed Wednesday, May 23, 2018, by the two victims of the November 2016 Gatlinburg area fire: Michael Reed, whose wife and two daughters died, and James England, whose home burned down. They seek a combined $14.8 million in damages. (Michael Patrick/Knoxville News Sentinel via AP, File)


GATLINBURG, Tenn. (AP) — Survivors of a historically deadly Tennessee wildfire that killed 14 people can sue the National Park Service for failing to warn them of the danger, a federal judge has ruled.

The fire began in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park near Gatlinburg over Thanksgiving week in 2016. Greg Salansky, the park’s fire management officer, decided to try to contain the fire rather than attack it directly despite forecasts of high winds dry conditions, The Knoxville News Sentinel reported.

The blaze ultimately left more than a dozen people dead, damaged more than 2,500 homes and caused an estimated $2 billion in losses.

The U.S. Department of Justice, which is representing the Park Service, has argued that citizens don’t have the legal right to challenge how government workers chose to handle the fire, because those decisions are “discretionary.” But the survivors’ attorney, Gordon Ball, argued the Park Service’s own fire management plan required Salansky to notify local leaders and those living nearby about the blaze. He argues Salansky didn’t do this, and instead announced the fires posed “no immediate threat” to the community.

Senior U.S. District Judge Thomas Phillips agreed with Ball, ruling the Park Service’s own plan made warning residents and leaders mandatory, not discretionary, the newspaper reported Tuesday. Victims can sue on the grounds that the Park Service is liable for failing to warn them, Phillips ruled. However, they can’t sue based on the approach the Park Service took to fighting the blaze, he added.

The Justice Department can still appeal the lawsuits.

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