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ONDBEAT: Mountain town strives to rise from devastating fires

This past Thanksgiving I ventured back to my hometown of Gatlinburg, Tenn., nestled next to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, never expecting anything out of the ordinary.

In that regard, I wasn’t disappointed. It was a usual visit with my usual family, consisting of meals and visits and adventures downtown, including a trip to the East Tennessee tourist town’s annual Great Smoky Thanksgiving Arts & Crafts Show that weekend at the Gatlinburg Convention Center.

Up until last Monday, Nov. 28, Gatlinburg was in its typical holiday mode and safe zone. A regular array of out-of-towners milled along the Parkway, the town’s renowned main drag, to view its shops and festive holiday lights, oblivious to the inferno that would descend that evening.

There was nothing extraordinary when I left home the previous Sunday morning, Nov. 27, either, which I’ve since realized isn’t a bad way for things to be.

That morning, skies were clear and temperatures were cold. The worst thing relating to the atmosphere had to do with clearing frost off my car windows and windshield, something I don’t have to do nearly as often here on the Carolinas coast. There wasn’t a wisp of Smokies smoke or hint of what was about to come.

I headed home that morning toward Asheville, taking my customary northeasterly route on U.S. 321. My son took an opposite southern path on U.S. 441 through Cherokee en route to his new home in Florida. Along the way, he saw fire flaming from the Chimney Tops, a popular hiking mountain towering 4,724 feet above sea level in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, eight miles down the road from Gatlinburg.

To this day, I don’t believe anyone could have foreseen this wildfire, believed to be human-caused, would spread the next day into Gatlinburg and surrounding areas, burning 17,000 acres, destroying 1,700 homes and businesses, spurring the evacuation of thousands, injuring 130 and taking 14 lives.

The first inkling of this destructive domino effect came Monday afternoon when my sister sent emails informing her siblings that firefighters from nearby Pigeon Forge, as well as from Florida and Oregon, had been dispatched to her street abutting the national park.

As winds whipped up, embers from the Chimneys fire were believed to have sparked a second fire at a park picnic area a few miles down the road from her house.

At first it was just a voluntary evacuation, she wrote, and she had decided to stay put. A Knoxville TV station even stopped by to interview her about her concerns and how she hoped the fire wouldn’t pose a threat.

But just a few hours later, “voluntary” had become “mandatory” as winds grew into hurricane-force ones, propelling falling trees and flames into Gatlinburg in the process.

My 69-year-old sister and 88-year-old mother were among thousands forced to evacuate. After a tree fell across her street, a fireman carried my mother to my sister’s car with just the clothes on her back.

As they fled their neighborhood, my sister later told about how she drove through fire spilling down and sizzling up an adjacent hillside where people would become trapped in a hotel.

As they joined the throngs seeking shelter somewhere out of town, those of us with Gatlinburg connections tuned into the breaking news from elsewhere couldn’t believe what we were seeing and hearing. Our town was burning down. Soon, families and friends were burning up phone lines and texting messages, trying to do what we could to help.

Our disbelief carried over into the following days as we monitored news conferences by local officials, several of whom lost their own homes and livelihoods. Photos and videos of the fiery destruction didn’t lie, but we still couldn’t comprehend the magnitude of the disaster that had just destroyed about half the town.

Last Friday, as the fires receded but still weren’t fully contained, residents and business owners were allowed back into town during designated hours to assess their damages and losses, to secure what was left of their property and start making plans for the future. (My sister was among those who returned to learn our family’s houses had survived.)

Gatlinburg, after all, was launched by hardy mountain families who went through plenty of difficult times, too.

As the town gets ready to welcome visitors back this Friday, something tells me their descendants are going to see this one through, too.

Laura Lewis is a staff writer for the Beacon. Reach her at 754-6890 or llewis@brunswickbeacon.com.