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The Great Smoky Mountain Journal

Staff Reports

Posted: Sunday, January 21, 2018 11:21 AM

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WVLT: Members Of Wildfire Survivor Group Feel "Misrepresented" By Group According To Petition

For several months since the fires, there has been a wildfire survivor group, first formed on Facebook, that has participated in countless interviews with multiple media outlets. Now, members of the Gatlinburg Wildfire Survivors Group have quit and said the direction of the group is not representative of all survivors.

The group was initially formed by Melinda Tipton as a way for wildfire survivors to come together as a community of support. However, just nine months after the fires, several members have quit and said the group is misrepresenting the majority.

"It's just not right, I am so sorry for belonging to that," said former member Cheryl Refsland.

Refsland, along with nearly 800 others, signed a petition against the group. The petition stated: "You are not creating division in our community, you are effectively removing yourself from it. You are not my voice, nor my family's, nor my neighbors'. We move forward together and it is time you join us in doing so or move on."

The rest of the petition can be read here.

Some members said the group had become too negative and seemed to be orchestrated by a man named Erik Cooper.

Dinah Bays said it seemed like the group's activities were heavily influenced by Cooper.

"I could sense, and what I could hear on interviews in the media, I just don't know how much was written by the participants or was written by Erik," said Bays.

Refsland said she actually witnessed Cooper writing questions for group members to read at County and City Commission meetings.

"He started writing their questions for them," said Refsland. "He said, 'This meeting is coming up, and I want you to be prepared.' He was great at whipping everybody up into a frenzy, like, 'Yes, we are going to protest, we are going to do this,' when they were already angry, and it just bothered me because I was afraid someone was going to get hurt."

Refsland and Bays said Cooper told the group he was attending group functions because he supports the group and is shooting a documentary on the events since the fires.

"I can't be still anymore, I have to tell the truth, and the truth is Erik Cooper wants to make a documentary, he's told us that from the start," said Refsland.

Cooper has told Local 8 News that he is not a member of the group and is not the leader of the group; however, he has said that he supports the group. He has declined to comment on camera about the workings of the group or his documentary.

Cooper also stated that he is a concerned citizen, and that the Gatlinburg Wildfire Survivor group has vocal members who are asking hard questions.