The Great Smoky Mountains are named for their shroud of blue smoke, a phenomenon caused by natural emissions from the area’s vegetation. But in November 2016, the smoke in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, was from a devastating wildfire. After a four-month drought, a teenager flicked a match that would grow to cover 17,000 acres in a matter of hours. Hurricane-force winds drove the flames toward downtown Gatlinburg. Residents fled for their lives, and Tennesseans watched in horror as fire threatened the mountains. Media reports spun out of control, reporting the destruction of Ober Gatlinburg, Ripley’s Aquarium, and even parts of Pigeon Forge, leaving those watching news coverage to believe Gatlinburg had essentially been leveled by the flames. When the fire was extinguished three days later, after a hard-fought battle by Gatlinburg firefighters, the wildfire had taken 14 lives, damaged over 2,400 structures, and caused over $500 million worth of damages.
A grim mood hung over the entire state as Gatlinburg picked itself up. Volunteers and donations poured in for families who had lost everything, and Dolly Parton created the My People Fund, which gave $10,000 to hundreds of families who had lost their homes in the fire. (https://dollywoodfoundation.org) In May 2017, the My People Fund turned over the remaining $3 million to Mountain Tough, Sevier County’s recovery effort. (http://www.mountaintough.org) During Gatlinburg’s recovery, two words were repeated again and again: “tough” and “family.”
Five months after the wildfires, I attended a weekend trip hosted by Sugarlands Distilling Co., and I once again heard the word “family” repeated in the heartfelt voices of the mountain community. Sugarlands is a locally owned company, and I could feel the East Tennessee spirit in each person I met there. During a tour of the distillery, our guide, Connie, showed off the distillery’s new machinery, just seven weeks old. Previously, six workers jarred the moonshine by hand, but the new machinery allows them to jar moonshine faster than ever before. Connie was quick to emphasize that none of the six workers who were responsible for jarring the shine the old-fashioned way had lost their jobs. That’s the East Tennessee spirit: taking care of each other and putting people first.
That same spirit is healing Gatlinburg. In December, the streets were quiet. Shops usually filled with families, locals, and tourists were empty, and the town lacked its unique energy. Exaggerated reports of fire damage dissuaded travelers from visiting Gatlinburg, and what should have been one of the town’s busiest seasons—when people flock to see snow-covered mountains and Christmas lights hung above the streets—was marked by silent shops and remnants of smoke. Now, even during a weekend fraught with storms, snow, and high winds causing power outages and road closures, Gatlinburg was buzzing with people exploring the mountainside and the local shops and restaurants. East Tennesseans aren’t the only ones who love the Gatlinburg spirit. Whether the small town is filled with childhood memories or new memories waiting to be made, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a person strolling the streets or climbing the trails without a smile.
It’s impossible to visit Gatlinburg without spending time in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. During my visit, my group hiked the Elkmont area with our guide, Clayton Laprees. In the forest, the November wildfires were nothing more than a memory. Surrounded by healthy trees and the sounds of wildlife, it was difficult to call up the bitter taste of smoke from five months earlier. The mountains are already healing. Some trees still have charred rings around the base of their trunks, and from the Space Needle, four hundred feet above Gatlinburg, you can see patches of blackened forest on the mountainside. But the wildfire burned away the accumulated fuel, and from the ashes, the forest will come back stronger than ever.
This isn’t the first time the forest has been injured. In the seventeenth century, eighty-five percent of the national park was heavily logged by British colonists. Looking at the tree-covered mountainside today, it’s difficult to believe it had once been cleared and terraced for farming. In a few short centuries, nature reclaimed the mountains, following the long-standing cycle of destruction and rebirth in the forest. Wildfires burn away the old, and new springs in its place. Recent emphasis on wildfire prevention has created what experts call the “Smokey Bear effect.” Decades of fuel accumulates on the forest floor until a fire finally breaks out—a much larger and more aggressive fire than would have started had it been allowed to burn naturally. Combine this Smokey Bear effect with the 2016 drought and the human hand tossing the match appears merely incidental. The fire was in line with the natural cycle of the mountains, and standing in the forest, everything felt balanced and at peace. Only the stone chimneys scattered among the trees didn’t belong. Many cabins throughout Elkmont were recently demolished, leaving only the foundations and chimneys. In time, those too will be reclaimed by the mountains.
After a day of hiking and moonshine, my group arrived at the Buckhorn Inn for dinner. I was immediately greeted and offered a glass of wine and a rocking chair with a view of Mount Le Conte. At 7:00 p.m. we enjoyed the sort of dinner every Southern child remembers. We ate together, and no one touched their forks until everyone had their food. The servers joked and laughed, and when the inn switched from generator power halfway through the meal, everyone cheered.
And yet, across from our hotel, with only a narrow street and a gentle river between them, was the skeleton of a once beautiful hotel. The Riverhouse Motor Lodge was built by Hugh Faust in 1971 and became a well-loved vacation spot for many. More valuable than the building’s walls and furniture were the years of family memories it held. I crossed the river and stood shaken among the wreckage. The roof was burned away. The walls were blackened. The pool was grimy and stagnant, and the chimney rose above the remains—a grim contrast to the historic chimneys standing among the trees at Elkmont. The lodge is one of many establishments and homes destroyed in the fires, and the buildings’ crumbling remains remind Gatlinburg of last year’s tragedy and the work still to be done.
If there is a place equipped to rise from that wreckage, it’s Gatlinburg, Tennessee. Perhaps the mountains’ blue smoke is more than a product of plants’ natural emissions, because the mountains have a quality I’ve never experienced anywhere else. They take your troubles away. Reality grinds to a stop in the shadow of the Smokies, and life’s weight falls into the valleys. People smile more, laugh more, open up to each other. They get to know their neighbors and put others’ needs ahead of their own. When tragedy struck, the world saw the truth about Gatlinburg, something only the locals had known: a place where people’s hearts belong to their neighbors can overcome anything. Media reported images of blistering fires, charred buildings, and blackened trees, but the real story happened—and is still happening—after the wildfires. Local East Tennesseans showed their true spirit, from Dolly Parton’s generous donations to every volunteer who offered their time and compassion to those displaced by the disaster. Every person who has ever walked in the shadow of the Smokies is bound to the mountains and to each other. For every tragedy, no matter the scale, we rally behind each other, and we all rise up stronger.
Victoria is an East Tennessee author and book editor. Her short fiction has appeared in such publications as NonBinary Review, Torrid Literature Journal, and A Journey of Words. She loves dark chocolate, darker coffee, and even darker literature, and when she’s not writing or editing, she’s either relaxing in a hammock or lifting something heavy in the weight room.
Sources: http://www.newschannel5.com/story-hold/fire-on-the-mountain-devastating-gatlinburg-fires-of-2016 http://www.knoxnews.com/story/news/local/tennessee/2016/12/13/officials-wildfires-caused-500m-damages/95370762/