GATLINBURG, Tenn. — A month after a devastating fire roared through his county, Larry Waters still has had little time to reflect on it all.
“Never in my wildest dreams, I never imagined having to deal with a disaster of this magnitude,” said the Sevier County mayor.
Gatlinburg resident Ernest Ogle, 74, put the night of Nov. 28 more succinctly: “It was terrible.”
Ogle escaped the flames around his home of 40 years by careening his car down a little-used, narrow road dodging a 50-foot dropoff as flames lapped at either side of the vehicle. His was one of many harrowing escapes.
Twelve people didn’t make it. One more died of a heart attack and another in a vehicle accident fleeing the blaze. A total of 191 were treated for injuries suffered.
Now, this vacation-destination town of 4,097 that attracts more than 11 million tourists a year is a surreal place.
The drive down the Parkway, the main street with its many tourist attractions, is almost eerily unchanged. Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies looks the same; so does Pancake Pantry, a legendary breakfast establishment that serves 1,500 customers a day. Candy stores, souvenir shops and novelty museums have dealt with little more than smoke damage and look from the outside as they always have looked.
But just blocks away in just about any direction, the view is much different.
Houses and businesses along Cherokee Orchard Road near The Park Vista hotel are just blackened foundations and ash. The sight is common at the base of Ski Mountain Road headed up to the Ober Gatlinburg Ski Resort. And in the Wiley Oakley area. And Mynatt Park. And Hemlock Hills. And Pittman Center. And many other places. More than 2,460 structures were damaged or destroyed.
A total of 17,140 acres burned in what officially is called the Chimney Tops No. 2 fire, 10,964 acres of which were in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. In the Cobbly Nob fire, which was treated separately, 764 acres burned, 446 acres in the park.
Yet, as Gatlinburg Mayor Mike Werner stated repeatedly at the many news conferences held after the tragedy, Gatlinburg and Sevier County are “Mountain Strong” and the area already is working hard to come back.
“This crisis has tested the mettle of our emergency responders, community leaders and local citizens,” said Clay Jordan, deputy superintendent of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
It still is too early to come up with exact dollar figures on this fire, which Gov. Bill Haslam called “the worst in a century in Tennessee.”
At a news conference Dec. 13, Waters put the damages at $500 million.
U.S. Forest Service firefighters Cash Jessop, left, and Brandon Allen extinguish a pocket of fire Friday, Dec. 2, 2016, in the Twin Creeks area of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Officials say the Chimney Tops 2 fire has killed 13 people and destroyed more than 2,400 structures. It is human caused and under investigation. (Photo: Paul Efird/News Sentinel)
A tent village was set up near the Boyd’s Bear building assistance location in Pigeon Forge in the days after the fire, where insurance companies placed representatives to deal with people filing claims. Contacted by the News Sentinel last week, Tennessee Department of Commerce and Insurance spokesman Kevin Walters said a total dollar figure for those claims still is being compiled. More than 400 claims were filed the first morning it was opened.
According to data supplied by Dana Soehn, park spokeswoman, the total cost of fighting of the fire is estimated at $8.8 million.
“A cost share agreement was established between the National Park Service and the state of Tennessee Department of Agriculture, Division of Forestry. Costs were split based on acres burned. The National Park Service will pay 60 percent and the state will pay 40 percent of the incident,” according to an emailed response from Soehn and Jordan to News Sentinel questions.
The park officials also were asked about assets used in the firefight.
“The number of resources varied daily, but during our peak suppression activity, we utilized over 780 firefighters from 40 states and the District of Columbia. The resources during the peak operation include 61 engines, 7 helicopters and 5 dozers.”
The $8.8 million is the cost incurred for firefighting resources authorized by the National Park Service. It does not include the cost to local fire departments, including Gatlinburg’s, for fighting the fire.
The state has procured a federal FEMA grant to cover 75 percent of costs once the documented bills are handed in. This covers only the expense of battling the blazes and not any damages they caused.
Mary Hope Maples of the Smoky Mountain Tourism Development Council said it likely will be March before tax collection numbers are available to determine the hit the area took in lost tourist dollars.
“Late November/early December is historically a quieter time for our area,” she said. “However, the weeks of Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s are some of our busiest times of the year.”
Garry Myers, president of Pancake Pantry, said the week of Dec. 25-31 will be a big indicator for how things are going because, with school out, businesses count on a big bump in visitors. A visit there on Christmas Day found Gatlinburg bumper-to-bumper with vehicles on the Parkway and the sidewalks filled with tourists.
“The tourist attractions that bring people here are open for business, however, the hotels and other places they stay were hit pretty hard,” Myers said.
The county’s largest occupancy hotel, the 300-room Park Vista in Gatlinburg, was reopened Wednesday after being closed for 22 days. It was a scary scene on Nov. 28 when, as a video later showed, flames were lapping on the side of the building.
The fire had a humble beginning. An acre-and-a-half blaze near the top of the park’s Chimney Tops trail was reported on Nov. 23, according to a park news release.
It was treated using forest-firefighting techniques that, partially because of safety concerned in the rugged terrain, involved organizing a break-line perimeter around 400 acres.
The fire expanded only slightly to about 6 acres through Nov. 27. Then on Nov. 28, winds that would reach almost 90 mph that evening arrived sooner and much stronger than forecast. Burning embers jumped from ridge to ridge, some flying miles. They reached Gatlinburg, about 5.5 miles from Chimney Tops, and started fires wherever they landed.
In the span of less than an hour, starting around 5:20 p.m., 20 structures in areas of the town caught fire. The nightmare had begun.
Two teenagers, ages 17 and 15, were charged on Dec. 7 in Sevier County Juvenile Court with aggravated arson, suspected of setting the fires at Chimney Tops.
The teens’ names were not released because of their juvenile status, however, sources later told the News Sentinel the two are from Anderson County and likely caused the fire by playing with matches.
“Every disaster is different, but this was a very significant disaster,” said Suzanne Horsley, a spokeswoman for the American Red Cross.
Red Cross keeps track of disaster relief numbers and, in this case, they look overwhelming.
There were a total of 3,066 overnight stays in the shelters set up throughout the county after the fire. The shelters were manned by 405 volunteers, 16,000 meals were served and 1,300 people asked for health services.
Horsley said 439 case files were opened “and we will follow up on each one of these.”
Lori McMahan Moore, general manager at Rocky Top Sports World, said the facility was the early headquarters for fire victim relief activity. McMahan Moore said 1,200 victims were helped there on the night of Nov. 28, which was a particularly hectic place that night because it also was a staging area for first responders to the fire.
“It would be incredibly difficult to estimate (how many goods and services were supplied), but all of our needs were met,” McMahan Moore said. “If we ever asked for specific food donations, baby items, cleaning supplies, personal hygiene, etc., the items would arrive within hours.
“My most vivid memory was the Christmas party that the Rocky Top Sports World staff and local business leaders put together for the kids,” she said. “It was an amazing event.”
A relief supply center was set up in the old Boyd’s Bear building in Pigeon Forge, which in the days after the fire was a wildly busy place with carts of donations rolling in and fire victims collecting what supplies they could.
A trash fill specifically for fire refuse was later opened next to the city’s current landfill.
The Multi-Agency Recovery Center has been operating out of a shopping center in Pigeon Forge, where victims have been getting help on such tasks as replacing lost identification documents, getting assistance on retrieving pharmaceuticals and medical documents, applying for jobs and, as of Dec. 19, applying for financial aid through the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Sevier County was declared a federal disaster area by President Barack Obama on Dec. 15, making victims eligible for FEMA assistance.
“Some folks may be eligible for rental assistance, some for home-repair money and some through the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) might be eligible for low interest disaster loans,” said Earl Armstrong, FEMA public affairs spokesman when the FEMA center opened.
Gatlinburg City Manager Cindy Cameron Ogle’s office noted the state has several resources for businesses to use, including SBA low-interest loan, tax relief and layoff programs. Information on those can be found online.
Favorite daughter Dolly Parton, the country music legend, has been among those leading fundraising efforts for victims. She started the My People Fund and raised $9.3 million, most coming from a telethon in which many of her country music friends appeared. A total of 884 families received their first monthly $1,000 checks through the fund. People who lost their primary residences are eligible to receive the $1,000 a month for six months.
The East Tennessee Foundation’s Sevier County Community Fund has raised $200,000. Trudy Hughes, director of regional advancement, said the fund is set up to stay active in perpetuity. A committee has been established to consider how the funds will be distributed. One way to donate to the fund is through the foundation’s website.
The Gatlinburg Chamber of Commerce’s Gatlinburg Relief Fund is another one of the major fund drives ongoing. Donations can be made to it through SmartBank.
At least two concerts have been held in Gatlinburg. Numerous other, smaller fundraising efforts have been held and donations have been contributed of everything from dollars to baked hams to Christmas trees.
Although more money is needed, there are so many dollars and donations coming from numerous sources that the News Sentinel asked Gatlinburg Mayor Waters if he is concerned about keeping track of who’s giving and where it’s going.
“We have groups of people working to make sure the donations are distributed appropriately, and I am confident we will get help to those who need it,” he said.
Gatlinburg’s Ogle echoed the comment: “I am confident that the organizations that are helping with the donations will see to it that the money is going to the people who need it.”
At a volunteer reception center in Pigeon Forge, people are coming to help Gatlinburg and Sevier County get back to how things were before the fire.
“We have been in operation for two weeks,” said Alexandra Brownfield, executive director of Volunteer East Tennessee. “We have had 12,000 people volunteer. They have already contributed more than 50,000 hours; we estimate that at a value of $1.5 million. Obviously there are thousands more (volunteers) needed for the coming months. We are talking about a long-term commitment. We need thousands of people on a daily basis.”
She suggests going to mountaintough.org to volunteer time and/or give donations.
Extra efforts also are being made to help get tourists back to Sevier County.
“We are all (Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge, Sevierville and Sevier County) working together to promote tourism sustainability for our area,” said Maples, of Smoky Mountain tourism. “We are currently working hard through cooperative media visits in many of our feeder markets and will continue those efforts into our spring travel season and beyond. Also, we are working closely with our business communities through our chambers of commerce and local hospitality associations to communicate updated information for our guests on current and future reservations/visits.”
The park officials said they feel confident the park will bounce back quickly.
“We are fortunate that the park lies within a resilient, natural environment that will recover over time,” Soehn and Jordan said in the joint release.
“We are monitoring sensitive areas where the fires burned hotter and have received funds to help us stabilize erodible slopes and to help us detect threats from invasive plant species which might colonize burned areas. There are varying levels of disturbance across the burned areas, but in general the burn intensity was low to moderate across the valleys and mid slopes … The park received minor wind damage to a few buildings, but the structures across the burned area were spared from fire damage.”
With many buildings burned to their foundations, full recovery will take a long time.
“My sense is that this was such a rare combination of factors that a recurrence on this scale is not likely in our lifetimes,” Jordan said. “However, we are not going to rest on our laurels by assuming it could not happen again. We can always improve our systems and procedures and will join with the city, the county and the state to learn what we can from this incident.”
One change Waters said at a news conference that he will suggest is his desire to be a part of the decision on whether to evacuate should there be future emergencies. Many residents complained that the night of Nov. 28 they were not informed or misinformed of the evacuation. Several media accounts, including stories in the News Sentinel, have brought up protocols that either weren’t used or employed too late to be effective.
“While I’m confident those that were involved made the very best decisions they could make based on the information they were working with,” said Waters, when asked by the News Sentinel recently to elaborate on his news conference remark.
“I believe the county mayor should play a role in the decision to evacuate his/her county. I hope the state will evaluate the current law that says the county mayor is not part of that decision.”
All contacted for this story expressed confidence that the area will rebuild and be even better than it was before the fire.
“We will make it through this challenging and difficult time on both a personal and city basis, and be better on the other side of it,” Ogle said.
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