Nov. 28, 2016, Sevier County, Tenn. Months of drought and hurricane force winds whip a small wildfire in the Great Smoky Mountains into the perfect firestorm. Within hours, residents and tourists in Sevier County, home of the resort town of Gatlinburg, suddenly find themselves surrounded by smoke and flames.

As the fire spreads, local officials begin evacuations but can’t get the word out fast enough.

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The county fails to send wireless emergency alerts to cellphones. For much of the night, no one sends alerts over TV and radio using the Emergency Alert System.

2,500 buildings burned.
14 people died,
including Constance Reed
and her two young daughters,
Chloe and Lily.

Sevier County is among a growing number of communities at a higher risk of wildfire because of a concentration of homes in forested areas. Many of these places are in what the U.S. Forest Service calls the Wildland Urban Interface.

During a wildfire, FEMA recommends that local authorities use its Integrated Public Alert Warning System, or IPAWS. The network allows emergency managers to send alerts and warnings directly to all cellphones, televisions and radios at the same time.

Sevier County did not have FEMA authorization to use IPAWS at the time of the fire. The county had to rely on the state to send alerts, but by the time officials decided to send an evacuation alert through IPAWS, the fire had burned power lines and cellphone towers, making it impossible to reach state officials.

Records from FEMA and the U.S. Forest Service show 30 percent of counties with as much or more wildland population as Sevier County still do not have authority to use IPAWS.

Click here to see a list of counties and other authorities able to send IPAWS alerts.

Click here to see a list of counties and other authorities working with FEMA to get IPAWS access.

Reporting by Patrick Terpstra

Data analysis by Mark Fahey, Rosie Cima

Production by Robb Hedrick, Andrew Lawler

Photos courtesy of California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection,

Tennessee Division of Forestry, family of Constance Reed