November 29, 2016

Smoky Mountain/Gatlinburg Fire Update

 

First of all, I again want to express my deepest thanks for all who called, sent texts, emails, and Facebook messages to check on my well-being and share concern about this area. A lot of you had specific questions and concerns and I will hopefully address some of those here. Of course, I have no official capacity with the park or surrounding areas, but I am plugged into a number of resources that will hopefully allow me to provide you with an accurate assessment of this situation.

Fortunately, my family was spared any direct damage from the fires. As the crow flies, we are pretty close but everything significant is happening on the other side of the mountain and is having little to know direct impact on the Maryville and Townsend communities. We had a large fire burning in Walland, about 10 miles from my house, just prior to Thanksgiving, but it has been contained for some time. The current fire that everyone is seeing on the news began inside the national park.

Known as the Chimney 2 fire, it began near the Chimneys, just off 441, in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Up until Monday morning, it was a small fire, just a couple of acres, that seemed to be mostly contained. That changed Monday afternoon when winds picked up dramatically and quickly spread this fire over 500 acres. The park service requested additional crews and promptly closed many roads and trails in the area. 28 backcountry hikers/campers were safely removed from the area.

Voluntary evacuations were requested for parts of Gatlinburg as concerns grew. Around 6:00 p.m., wind speeds doubled with reports of gusts up to 87mph! Winds like this can reportedly carry a burning ember a mile. The fire quickly grew out of control and spread unpredictably with new fires constantly flaring up. Many of the new fires were caused by travelling embers, and many more were caused by electric lines that were downed by heavy winds. Given our drought conditions, it didn’t take much, and suddenly, Gatlinburg was on fire. Mandatory evacuations were then ordered.

It became difficult to tell what was going on, and it still is to an extent. False reports and rumors seemed to spread even faster than the flames. One report said that Ober Gatlinburg was burnt to the ground. It wasn’t. Another article from an online magazine had a headline that read, “Gatlinburg is Gone – Fire Destroys Most of Tourism Town.” This, in my opinion, is terribly irresponsible journalism and an obviously sensational attempt to drive traffic to their magazine.

Gatlinburg is not gone. Not even close. But they are in a real bad way. Almost all of the downtown is intact. Most businesses are intact. There were some businesses that burned, including hotels, but most did not. The greatest structural impact was to homes and rental cabins that dot the mountainside all around the town of Gatlinburg. Some entire neighborhoods are gone, including Cobbly Nobb which lost an estimated 70-100 homes. They are still very much in assessment mode so an exact number of structures lost is still not known, but it is easily in the hundreds.

The miracle of the whole thing is that they seemed to have gotten everyone evacuated in time. So far, there have been 12 reported people with non life-threatening injuries and no fatalities. Amazing! And as much as I like to poke fun at Gatlinburg, they are friends, they are neighbors, and they are an incredibly resilient people. They will bounce back from this, likely stronger than before.

Shelters have been set up to accommodate the estimated 14,000 evacuees. The National Guard has been deployed. Supplies and donations have flooded in from neighboring communities like mine. If you want to help, donate to the Red Cross. They’re doing a great job here and could use your support.

The fires are still burning but overnight rain on Monday helped. There is another weather system that is supposed to come through tonight (I’m writing this on Tuesday afternoon) that could help more, but accompanying heavy winds are a concern. Cold temperatures move back in after this system too, and that will help.

Of course, the fire is still burning inside the park and it remains to be seen what kind of damage will be done. At last report, important structural assets like Elkmont and Leconte Lodge are still intact. Initially, it was mostly undergrowth and duff burning. I don’t know if that is still the case and how much of the actual forest will burn. There was concern about wind-fallen trees that could catch fire. Apparently those things can burn for hundreds of hours. There is also concern of unseen, underground root fires. This whole thing is going to take awhile and require a lot of babysitting.

As far as long-term ecological impact, I’m not sure if anyone knows. I know I don’t. The Smoky Mountains are, in essence, a rain forest. Fires here are rare, and fires on this scale are unprecedented, at least in modern time. Often times, a fire can do long term good for a forest. I hope that’s the case in this situation.

If you want to help out the park, I know they would appreciate it, too. Friends of the Smokies is a great organization that would gratefully accept your donation and allocate it wisely.

I hope some of this information is helpful. I know many of you love this area as much as I do.