After the Fire and Smoke is Gone…We Will Still Be Smoky Mountain Strong. On Monday evening November 28 in a matter of minutes, a wildfire in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park spread into the city Gatlinburg and nearby communities of Sevier County. Extreme dry conditions (we have had very little rain the past several months) coupled with a cold front approaching with the promise of rain was preceded by extreme windy conditions of dry winds with gusts up to 80 mph and created a spontaneous fire storm. We could see the fire and smoke from our home. Twice that night, we had locked doors blown open with wind gusts. At the same time, I was on the phone with stranded church members trying to make sure they got out safely and arranging them for places to stay. Finally a little rain came into help a little. There were over 17,000 acres burned with over 10,000 of those acres in the National Park. Approximately 1,000 buildings and structures including several churches were damaged or destroyed. Amazingly, The main downtown business and tourist area of Gatlinburg remains mostly intact. Within a few hours shelters were set up in Gatlinburg, and nearby Pigeon Forge, and in Sevierville where I live. At our church, we were a shelter for the first night and now we are continuing preparing meals for the relief workers and the national guard.
At our local hospital where I serve as a volunteer chaplain, we treated over 80 people from the fire, others were transported to other hospitals as well. Most of those have been released. Unfortunately, there were some fatalities.
Other churches and organizations are mobilized and helping too in so may ways .Our local government officials , emergency personnel along with outside agencies and organizations have done an incredible job in help managing this crisis and helping our people.
The magnitude of of all of this.. is overwhelming but something that myself and other local residents have observed is even more amazing. Beneath the numbers, headlines and heartbreak is the outpouring of love and support of our local people. Many of them, shocked and experiencing personal loss themselves showing love of concern for others. A single parent with two children who lost her home and job in the fire, the very next day helps her friend by bringing her to our hospital for a scheduled outpatient surgery. Another family, who also lost their home in the fire were at a local store buying boxes of bottled water to to take to the firefighters still fighting the fire. In our community, we are continuing to hear so many of these personal stories of acts of kindness that are too numerous to count. We are known for our beautiful mountains here; but our greatest resource to survive and eventually thrive in spite something like this…is our people. For generations, our mountain people have learned to deal with hardship while at the same time helping others and loving their neighbors as themselves. It is just as powerful today as it was in the past. I am so proud and humbled to live in a community of such wonderful people.
The long process of healing and recovery has begun. Dollywood, businesses in Pigeon Forge and Sevierville are open. They project that downtown Gatlinburg will be open to the public in a few days.
In between hospital vists today, I called a friend to check on him. He and his wife are okay. At the time I called him, he and his wife were seeing the damage to their home for the first time since the fire. Their home is was destroyed as well as a lot of their business property. He told me that their faith was strong and talked about that they will get through this because that what mountain people do.