For historical and archival purposes, this post will have a summary of the wildfire disaster that became national news from late November to early-mid December 2016.
Although the Smoky Mountain Wildfires refer to the event that started on November 28th when conflagrations came down on Gatlinburg, Cobbly Nob, Pigeon Forge and Wears Valley, the Smokies had already been experiencing trouble with fires earlier than that. From October 2016 to November 2016, the entire Southeast had experienced a series of wildfires in which 33 wildfires had burned throughout the area in separate incidents. One noteworthy fire we had experienced in the Tennessee Smokies was a fire that burned in Walland near Townsend on November 21st. Residents and the students of Walland Elementary School had to be evacuated as the fire was started 300 yards from the school. The Walland fire had consumed roughly 1,350 acres of forestry and land before it could be contained. It was later determined to be caused by arson.
The reason these fires proliferated in the Southeast was due to a nearly unprecedented drought season we had been experiencing since before the start of Summer. Almost no significant rain fell in our region and, as a result, almost all of the mountain area in that region became extremely dry and more than susceptible to flame.
The event that became far more famous as the Smoky Mountain Wildfires of 2016 began at Chimney Tops 2 on November 23rd. Wikipedia writes:
“No suppression activities were initiated and on November 24th, 2016 park fire officials delineated containment boundary made of natural features which were hoped to contain the fire. On Sunday, November 27th, 2016, while the fire was still inside the containment boundary, three Chinook helicopter dumped water on the fire in an effort to mitigate its spread. Humidity values for this day dropped to as low as 17 percent during a period of “Exceptional” drought.”
On the 28th of November, Sevier County began experiencing high wind conditions from the afternoon until well into the night. In conjunction with the previously burning Chimney Tops 2 fire and the drought, the fires that began on November 23rd greatly expanded and flew out with the wind. What followed was a harrowing night for thousands of people living and vacationing in Pigeon Forge, Gatlinburg and Wears Valley resulting from blown sparks of the original fire as well as downed power lines. Fires raged across residential areas in Gatlinburg, the community of Cobbly Nob, sections of the Spur, Wears Valley and all of these areas within miles of each other came under mandatory evacuation. Fire crews from surrounding counties came to fight and contain the fires. Smoke and ash filled the air throughout the city. Many people were not allowed to go home and had to spend days and weeks in rescue areas without knowing the extent of damage done to their properties.
It was a very long night for all involved.
Although the main damage of the disaster was only that one night, the full extent of knowing what the fires had taken wouldn’t be known for some time after. The city of Gatlinburg remained under quarantine until December 6th. More than 2,400 structures, buildings, businesses and other properties were affected – including areas of historical relevance. Although many of the attractions in downtown Gatlinburg were completely spared, the hardest hit of the fires were residential areas. 134 people were injured and there were 14 fatalities.
The cause was also determined to be arson. The individuals were taken into custody and charged with aggravated arson.
Despite the loss of the historical disaster, Sevier County experienced an even more unprecedented event as a result – the amount of charity that came in. People from all over the country poured in their hearts and finances to the Smokies. Very quickly, before 36 hours had even passed, many charities and other improvised areas came to the forefront to provide for those affected. In the days and weeks that followed, the charity was so overwhelmingly positive that many places had to ask people to stop donating because they were full. Dolly Parton took a particularly proactive approach to bringing needs to those affected with the Dollywood Foundation and hosting no less than two telethons to bring more attention and donations to those who lost some or everything in the fires.
The list of structures affected can be found here.
As of writing now (March 2017), the Smoky Mountains is back to being fully open to tourism and the wildfires largely behind us. Although many areas are still in the process of being rebuilt (or left not to), our attitudes for Spring are the same now as they were in Spring 2016, 2015 and all the years before.
We welcome you back to the mountains.