Insurance companies sue government over Gatlinburg fire

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FILE -In this Wednesday, Nov. 30, 2016 file photo, smokes rises out of the remains of a burned-out business, in Gatlinburg, Tenn., after a wildfire swept through the area. Five lawsuits filed recently in federal court in Knoxville claim National Park Service officials violated their own policies by letting the blaze burn despite prolonged drought and predicted high winds. It says they also failed to monitor the fire or warn residents of the danger. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey, File)

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KNOXVILLE, Tenn.  — More than 40 insurance companies sued the federal government last week over its handling of a 2016 Tennessee wildfire that killed 14 people and destroyed or damaged more than 2,500 buildings in Sevier County.

The Knoxville News Sentinel reports the companies are seeking more than $450 million for claims they paid after high winds swept flames from a wildfire in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park into Gatlinburg and its surrounding areas.

The companies’ allegations are spelled out in five lawsuits filed in federal court in Knoxville.

They say Greg Salansky, the park’s fire management officer, first spotted smoke on Wednesday, Nov. 23, 2016 when the fire was roughly an acre (0.4 hectares) in size. It was the day before Thanksgiving, and most of the fire crew’s staff was on vacation. They were not called in, the lawsuit states.

For five consecutive nights park officials didn’t monitor the fire overnight, even as it grew to eight times its original size, according to the lawsuit.

Rangers were caught by surprise when they discovered on Monday morning that embers carried by the wind had started new fires, including one within 1.5 miles (2.4 kilometers) of the Gatlinburg city limits, the suit claims.

Local officials did not learn until 12:30 p.m. that Monday that the fire was headed their way. By the early evening, winds topped 60 mph (95 kph) and the city was enclosed by flames. Police and firefighters delivering evacuation notices failed to reach everyone in time.

The companies filed their lawsuits after the government did not respond to their earlier claims for damages. Total insurance claims after the fire topped $1 billion.

The park faces a separate lawsuit by victims of the fire.

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