News

Fire Sweeps Tennessee Town

A wildfire leaves widespread devastation in a popular tourist area

November 30, 2016
ERIK SCHELZIG—AP

Smoke surrounds a home as seen from a National Guard helicopter near Gatlinburg, Tennessee.

A swift-moving wildfire spread to the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains, in Tennessee, on Monday. It blazed through the town of Gatlinburg, a popular tourist area. The fire damaged or destroyed at least 150 buildings, including many homes and a 16-story hotel, and left more than a dozen people hospitalized. Three people were killed. On Tuesday, authorities went door to door to check on residents and visitors.

Wildfires had already been spreading for several weeks across the drought-stricken southern United States. Until Monday, they had not destroyed many homes and businesses. The fire in the Gatlinburg area was fueled on Monday night by hurricane-force winds topping 87 miles per hour. They knocked trees into power lines, which started additional fires and shot embers over long distances.

Trevor Cates walks through the smoldering remains of his church, the Banner Missionary Baptist Church, in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, on November 29.

BRIAN BLANCO—GETTY IMAGES
Trevor Cates walks through the smoldering remains of his church, the Banner Missionary Baptist Church, in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, on November 29.

The flames spread towards neighboring towns, including Pigeon Forge, home to the Dollywood theme park, named after country singer and local hero Dolly Parton. The park was not significantly damaged.

“I have been watching the terrible fires in the Great Smoky Mountains and I am heartbroken,” Parton said in a statement. “I am praying for all the families affected by the fire and the firefighters who are working so hard to keep everyone safe.”

Rapid Response

The speed at which the fires spread caught residents and tourists in the Gatlinburg area by surprise. Police officers went from house to house on Monday, banging on doors and ordering people to leave right away. In all, more than 14,000 people were forced to evacuate. National Guard troops arrived on Tuesday to help combat the flames.

For many residents, the damage was overwhelming. “I’m just astonished this is my town,” Marci Claude said. She is a spokesperson for the Gatlinburg Convention and Visitors Bureau.

On Tuesday, officials said the worst was over, after the winds calmed and rain began to fall in some areas. However, the rainfall is not expected to stop the fires completely, since the bone-dry ground caused by the long drought is expected to soak up the moisture quickly. “Even with the rain that is currently falling there, the fires continue to burn and structures remain engulfed with little hope that the rainfall will being immediate relief,” a representative of the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency said in a statement.

Ready to Rebuild

Gatlinburg has a population of 3,944 and attracts more than 11 million visitors each year. The area is considered the gateway to the Great Smoky Mountains, the most visited national park in the country. While the town’s mayor, Mike Werner, who lost his own home in the fire, described the damage to Gatlinburg as “devastating,” he said that the community would recover from the experience and rebuild.

“We’re strong. We’re resilient. And we’re going to make it,” Werner said during a news conference on Tuesday. “We’re going to pull it together and continue to make Gatlinburg the premier resort that it is.”

After viewing the damage, Tennessee’s governor, Bill Haslam, called the fire the largest one to happen in the state in 100 years. He pledged that work would begin soon to restore the area that he called “a special place in the state of Tennessee.”


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