When dawn broke over Gatlinburg
on Tuesday, hearts broke as well throughout the region and across the country.
Fueled by autumn leaves and drought-parched conditions, whipped by winds approaching 90 miles an hour, wildfires swept out of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park into the resort town Monday night.
Flames consumed cabins and chalets, torched businesses and laid waste to resorts and residences. At least three people are confirmed dead.
The thoughts and prayers of East Tennesseans, joined by those who have fond memories of vacations in Gatlinburg, go out to those affected by the disaster.
“This is a fire for the history books,” Gatlinburg Fire Chief Greg Miller said at a Tuesday morning news conference as 14 structures continued to burn. “The likes of this has never been seen here.”
Gov. Bill Haslam, who took an aerial tour of the devastation that he said left him numb, said it was the worst fire in 100 years in Tennessee.
An estimated 14,000 people fled. At least 14 people received medical treatment, and three were in critical condition Tuesday at Vanderbilt Medical Center’s burn center in Nashville. Authorities still are going house to house, searching for anyone who was unable to escape.
The damage assessment is incomplete, but initial reports indicate the difference between miracle and misfortune was razor thin. Two dormitories at the Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts burned down, but the rest of the campus survived. Ripley’s Aquarium, home to more than 10,000 animals, also was spared.
While the damage is widespread, businesses along the Parkway in downtown Gatlinburg sustained far less damage than structures in other parts of town, according to City Manager Cindy Ogle. Ogle’s home was destroyed. Mayor Mike Werner was among those who lost his home and his business. Outside Gatlinburg, scores of homes in Wears Valley and Cobbly Nob were incinerated.
First responders, some of whom have been fighting wildfires for weeks, continue to fight fires and clear roadways. Hundreds of firefighters from across the state and as far away as California joined the battle, and more than 100 members of the Tennessee National Guard have deployed in Sevier County. They have fought flames and fatigue with equal determination and bravery.
The humanitarian response has been just as inspiring. The American Red Cross is providing shelter and coordinating donations. In Knoxville, items can be donated at the Knoxville Civic Auditorium and Coliseum. Numerous businesses, including Sevier County restaurants, also are providing aid. East Tennesseans went to social media to offer spare bedrooms to anyone who needed accommodations.
We mourn the loss of life while praising the emergency responders who kept the death toll remarkably low. The generosity of ordinary citizens in East Tennessee and beyond is heartening.
The damage to the Smokies’ gateway community is enormous, and rebuilding will be a long-term challenge. Scars likely will remain visible for years. However, the residents of Gatlinburg and the rest of Sevier County are tough, proud and resilient. Their spirit will rise from the ruins.
—The Knoxville News Sentinel, Nov. 30, 2016