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Evacuation Decision-Making in the 2016 Chimney Tops 2 Fire: Results of a Household Survey



Emily H. Walpole, Erica D. Kuligowski, Lauren B. Cain, Alicea N. Fitzpatrick, Christin Salley


To gain insight into the emergency communication and evacuation decision-making surrounding the 2016 Chimney Tops 2 fire, NIST conducted (via a small business survey research contractor) an online survey targeting homeowners in the Gatlinburg, TN area from October 2018 to May 2019. Among the 323 participants selected in our final sample, it was found that the majority were largely unaware of wildfire risks and had not experienced evacuations previously. On the day the fire spread into residential areas, only a small percentage reported receiving information from official sources or official evacuation notices, instead relying more commonly on information from the media, social sources, and cues from the fire itself (such as smoke, embers, and flames) to become informed about the impending wildfire threat. The great majority of the sample evacuated from the area, most commonly on the day the fire spread into residential areas in response to intense fire cues and feeling afraid for themselves and others. A thematic analysis of voluntary end of survey comments provide additional nuance to these findings, in that many participants felt unprepared for the evacuation, and took independent action to try and get themselves to safety. Recommendations from these findings include the need for greater public outreach and awareness of local wildfire risks and preparation in the region, as well as what to expect in terms of evacuation procedures. In addition to having a better-prepared public, these results highlight the importance of giving timely, coordinated, and clear warning messages and signage to avoid chaotic or difficult evacuation processes. Specific recommendations on the construction of effective warning messages are provided in Section 5, as well as limitations of this work.
Technical Note (NIST TN) - 2103
Report Number


Emergency communication, emergency management, evacuation, WUI, wildfire


Walpole, E. , Kuligowski, E. , Cain, L. , Fitzpatrick, A. and Salley, C. (2020), Evacuation Decision-Making in the 2016 Chimney Tops 2 Fire: Results of a Household Survey, Technical Note (NIST TN), National Institute of Standards and Technology, Gaithersburg, MD, [online], (Accessed June 23, 2024)


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Created July 22, 2020, Updated July 23, 2020